immortality as an engineering problem

Aubrey de Grey ag24 at mole.bio.cam.ac.uk
Fri Jul 17 14:54:50 EST 1998


I have no axe to grind re telomeres -- I specialise in mitochondria
-- and I agree with you and most of the gerontology community that
the results of Geron tell us very nearly nothing about human aging,
but this dismissal of their and others' work will not do.  Several
additional scientific publishing considerations are relevant.

The reason why two groups published very similar results very nearly
simultaneously is not either of these: it is simply that as soon as
the catalytic component of human telomerase was cloned it was freely
available to several labs and they all did the obvious experiment.

One reason reason why (a) no one else has done so and (b) the second
paper was published in a less stellar journal than the first is also
rather simple: it is that articles in the primary literature have to
report original work, and the prestige of where one can get something
published is determined by how important the original work is.  The
Geron/Shay report was first, so they got into Science; Vaziri et al.
extended Geron's results only a little.  (The paper by Carol Greider
that Tom mentions is a "perspectives"-type review to accompany the
Vaziri paper.)  You are quite right that the papers must have been in
press simultaneously, but this sort of race happens all the time and
the racers are obviously aware of each other's progress, since they
are the specialists in the field.  They would certainly have known
that Geron were ahead of them and were in press in Science -- such
things are not kept secret at that stage.  Their reviewers (wherever
they submitted it) would have known the same, which is why only the
original part of the work was important.  You are reading too much
into this.

The same is not true, however, of refutations of already published
work: they are every bit as publishable as the original -- so long
as they are founded on good science.  I personally do not know of the
unsuccessful attempts you mention to reproduce Geron's work.  Have
they been published?  If not, the implication is that the failure to
reproduce the results has not yet been persuasively shown to be due
to any inherent irreproducibility (as opposed to the experimenters'
having failed to do the experiment right).

> No one in my lab has ever even HEARD of the Current Biology paper.
> Does that prove anything?  No.

With respect, it indeed proves something: that no one in your lab did
the relevant literature search.  (A Medline search for "human telomerase
1998 life span" -- which is not particularly hard to dream up -- gets
only ten hits, which do not take many seconds to browse.)  If everyone
were so dismissive of work that they haven't been actively told about,
science would progress rather slowly.

Aubrey de Grey

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