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Aging researchers sued

Osteopaths ask for $120 million after being criticized; experts question limits of scientific debate

By | October 25, 2005

Two aging-science researchers are suing two other academics for $120 million, arguing that the defendants have damaged their reputation by accusing them of making inflated claims about the efficacy of anti-aging therapies they promote, a case that raises questions about when academic debate crosses a line.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Ronald M. Klatz and Robert M. Goldman, a pair of osteopaths who founded the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine, or A4M, in Chicago. The doctors, who also earned MD degrees in Belize, argue that their critics have defamed them as scientists and interfered with their business relationships. While A4M appears to be a clearinghouse of aging research and information, visitors to its website can quickly arrive at commercial sponsor pages selling all manner of products and services, many of questionable efficacy, according to some scientists. The two plaintiffs also have a company called Medical Development Management that sells anti-aging products, according to published reports.

Neither A4M nor the defendants--S. Jay Olshansky, an aging researcher at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and Thomas Perls, a geriatric medicine specialist at Boston University, Mass.-- would discuss the particulars of the suit with TheScientist, nor would they address which scientific issues are being contested.

A4M's website emphasizes the anti-aging powers of several hormone treatments, including DHEA and human growth hormone. An article on the site, for example, calls DHEA an "all around anti-aging drug" that can fight everything from diabetes to infections, and has been shown to extend the life of laboratory animals "by as much as 50 percent."

In a "position paper" on aging research, titled "The Truth about Human Aging", which appeared in Scientific American in May of 2002, Olshansky, Perls and others wrote that while some hormones appear to ameliorate certain problems associated with aging in some studies, none "has been proved to slow, stop or reverse aging…Hormone supplements now being sold under the guise of antiaging medicine should not be used by anyone unless they are prescribed for approved medical uses."

While hardly the only scientists to throw darts at perceived hype, Olshansky and Perls have been particularly aggressive at pointing it out-- a crusade motivated by what they believe is exaggeration's menace to legitimate aging science. The pair guest-edited an issue of the Journal of Gerontology: Biological Sciences on hype in the field of anti-aging medicine. (Another guest editor, Leonard Hayflick, is not being sued.) They have mocked A4M directly, including presenting the group with a fake "Silver Fleece" award for the "most outrageous or exaggerated claims about slowing or reversing aging."

Olshansky told The Scientist that he defends his right as a scientist to note falsehoods masquerading as truths. That includes making claims without ample evidence, he said. "It's the underlying premise that you can slow, stop, or reverse aging based on technology that exists today. That's the main problem" with A4M's approach, he said. And this lawsuit threatens to stifle scientific debate, Olshansky added. "They are trying to stop us from speaking up," he said.

Klatz, however, insists otherwise. "I have no problem with scientific and honest debate, but that's not what this is all about," he told The Scientist. Klatz's attorney, Sigmund Wissner-Gross, of the firm Brown Rudnick, in New York City, said the case was about "line-drawing," not freedom of scientific speech. "I understand that Olshansky would like to characterize this as an academic debate, but you can't make false and defamatory statements," he said. Indeed, last month, the judge hearing the case refused to dismiss the complaint on free speech grounds, Wissner-Gross added.

Daniel Perry, executive director of the Alliance for Aging Research, a Washington, DC-based non-profit that seeks increased funding for aging research, said he does not hold much stock in A4M's findings, and hopes the lawsuit doesn't give the organization more attention than it deserves. "Since we want to have the public understand aging better, and how to age with health and vitality, we want them to be getting their information from credible sources," Perry said. "To create an equal standing for some who are at least as interested in moving products as they are in providing unbiased evidence-based information to people is counterproductive."

Terry T. Fulmer, dean of the New York University College of Nursing, and president of the Gerontological Society of America, said she was not familiar with the lawsuit, though she did know the people on both sides of the case. Still, she said she rejects the notion that groups like A4M are dangerous to the field of aging research. "That's what makes our system of science in the United States so spectacular," Fulmer said. "People disagree and that's how we move the science ahead."

Still, other aging researchers were reluctant to comment on the legal dispute – suggesting that the suit may already be having a chilling effect. "I don't want to stick my head in that chopper," demurred Robert Binstock, of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, a past president of the Gerontological Society of America. "I don't want to get sued."

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