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Machines Like Us interviews: Aubrey de Grey

October 3, 2007

Aubrey de Grey, Ph.D., is a controversial biomedical gerontologist who lives in the city of Cambridge, UK. He is editor-in-chief of the academic journal Rejuvenation Research, and his work centers upon a detailed plan called Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS), which is aimed at preventing age-related physical and cognitive decline. He is also the co-founder (with David Gobel) and chief scientist of the Methuselah Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization based in Springfield, Virginia, USA.

A major activity of the Methuselah Foundation is the Methuselah Mouse Prize, a prize designed to accelerate research into effective life extension interventions by awarding monetary prizes to researchers who extend the lifespan of mice to unprecedented lengths. Regarding this, De Grey stated in March, 2005: "if we are to bring about real regenerative therapies that will benefit not just future generations, but those of us who are alive today, we must encourage scientists to work on the problem of aging." The prize reached US$4.2 million in February, 2007.

De Grey believes that once dramatic life extension of already middle-aged mice has been achieved, a large amount of funding will be diverted to this kind of research, which would accelerate progress in doing the same for humans. In his book, Ending Aging: The Rejuvenation Breakthroughs That Could Reverse Human Aging in Our Lifetime, Dr. de Grey and his research assistant Michael Rae describe the details of this biotechnology.

De Grey has been interviewed in recent years in many news sources, including CBS 60 Minutes, BBC, the New York Times, Fortune Magazine, Popular Science, and Technology Review.

Machines Like Us interview conducted by Norm Nason.

MLU: Welcome, Aubrey. I appreciate you joining me.

ADG: My pleasure.

MLU: Before we focus on your efforts to understand and eventually counter the aging process, perhaps we should first say a few words about aging itself. Why do organisms age, and die? Does the process serve some evolutionary purpose -- and if it does, will we run into trouble if we attempt to counteract it?

ADG: The general consensus among biologists who study aging is that aging does not serve any evolutionary purpose, no—that it happens by default. We have plenty of in-built, automatic anti-aging machinery, but perfect anti-aging machinery would be infinitely elaborate, so in practice it's only as good as was needed in the Stone Age to keep us from dying of old age before we died of other hazards like predation and starvation. I agree with this consensus.

MLU: Despite our collective desires and attempts to remain as youthful as possible, for the most part the general public accepts aging and death as being both natural and inevitable. You are the most vocal and articulate spokesman for the current effort to engineer our way out of senescence. What motivates you to believe that now is the time to pour scarce resources into the effort to combat aging?

ADG: My main motivation is the belief that we have a good chance of success in the lifetimes of many people alive today. I base that belief on what is now known about the nature of aging and on the fact that I have formulated a comprehensive and very detailed plan for defeating aging. The fact that it's so detailed is the main reason for confidence that it can probably be implemented within only a few decades.

MLU: I am impressed by not only your knowledge and enthusiasm, but also by your accessibility to others. On your website, you invite anyone who feels that death is inevitable or desirable to contact you, and you will personally attempt to convince them otherwise. How is it that you feel such a responsibility?

ADG: Science costs money, so the more money is invested in the war on aging, the sooner that war will be won. And the more people understand that defeating aging is both desirable and feasible, the more willing they -- and their elected representatives -- will be to invest that money. That's my main motivation. My secondary motivation is that the more the general public (and policy-makers) understand about the foreseeability of a post-aging world, the more effectively they will forward plan to make that world (and especially the transition to it) less turbulent and more rewarding for humanity as a whole.

MLU: You have done a great job of anticipating the arguments others may have against your efforts to cure aging. But for the benefit of readers who may not be familiar with them, can you briefly describe a few of the societal, biomedical, and philosophical arguments you are typically confronted with, and explain how you counter them?

ADG: The societal and philosophical objections are very numerous—overpopulation, inequality of access, boredom, social security, immortal tyrants, you name it, I have specific, detailed replies to all these at my website. I also have two very general responses to all such concerns. The first is that it should be for society of the future to choose whether to use these therapies, not for us to deny those therapies to future society by delaying developing them. The second is that saving lives is the number one moral imperative for all of us, and defeating aging will save lives on a scale greater than any other development in human history, so we should do it as soon as possible even if we don't know exactly how we'll address the societal consequences. As for the biomedical objections, there are not many, and nearly all of them are based on misunderstanding of what I'm proposing or ignorance of what is already possible. I hope that such unfounded objections will become rarer now that my general-audience book "Ending Aging" is out and people can find the whole story in one place.

MLU: Please give us an overview of SENS—your strategies to counteract the aging process.

ADG: SENS is a seven-point plan for the comprehensive repair and maintenance of the body at the molecular and cellular level. Each point addresses one of the types of intrinsic "damage"—ongoing, lifelong accumulating side-effects of our normal metabolism that contribute to eventual age-related pathology and disease. The seven types of damage are cell loss, cell death-resistance, chromosomal mutations, mitochondrial mutations, indigestible molecules inside the cell, indigestible molecules outside the cell, and crosslinking of long-lived extracellular proteins.

MLU: Even as a young boy it was apparent to me that our technology-driven generation might be the first in history to cure aging. In this context, please tell us about the significance of achieving "escape velocity."

ADG: It'll almost certainly be a very long time indeed—many decades, possibly centuries—before we can completely repair everything that qualifies as "damage" above and therefore totally prevent aging. But luckily, we don't need to reach perfection in order to maintain our youth indefinitely, because a certain amount of damage—the sort of amount we have in early adulthood—is harmless, not causing any disease or debilitation. If we can develop reasonably comprehensive repair and maintenance therapies, that will buy time to develop even more comprehensive ones, thus buying more time to improve the therepies even more, and so on indefinitely, even if the therapies never achieve absolute perfection. "Longevity escape velocity" is the name I've given to the rate at which we would need to maintain this improvement of the therapies, following the initial breakthrough that gives middle-aged people maybe 30 extra years of healthy life.

MLU: What is the purpose of the Methuselah Mouse Prize?

ADG: Though I'm pretty sure that SENS is the most promising approach to defeating aging, I know that (like any scientist) I could be wrong. Therefore, it's important to encourage others to follow their hunches, which is what prizes are really good at—so, we offer a prize for unprecedentedly long-lived mice. The prize also has the benefit of raising the profile of life-extension research (including SENS) generally, yet without trivialising it.

MLU: One of the important consequences of successful SENS research is that we will no longer lose creative, inventive individuals and their priceless gifts to humanity. I am certainly not alone in having experienced the travesty of losing friends who added much to our society. Neil Boyle, for instance, was an amazingly gifted and prolific artist. Such losses diminish not only us as individuals, but the entire human fraternity. As John Donne said, "...any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind...." Is this part of your motivation to cure aging?

ADG: I guess so, yes—but usually I don't think that deeply about it. I am personally satisfied simply to feel that saving lives is the most important thing anyone can do, and the more lives the better. By that measure, I'm definitely in the right business.

MLU: Every living organism strives to persist; it is part of the evolutionary process. In this sense, perhaps, SENS is reinforcing our purpose as an evolving species. Any thoughts on this?

ADG: I think that's absolutely right. The whole of technology is part of our implementation of our survival instinct, and this is just one more stage.

MLU: Adjacent technologies often help one-another in unexpected ways. Will the current effort to create synthetic organisms benefit SENS?

ADG: I'm not sure whether the synthetic biology of today will help, but there's a good chance that synthetic biology will in a decade or two develop into a major area that has the potential to contribute to many areas of biomedical technology, including SENS.

MLU: Tell us about the 2005 controversy begun by Jason Pontin, editor of Technology Review, and how his criticism of SENS eventually worked in your favor.

ADG: Pontin commissioned a profile on me by the surgeon and author Sherwin Nuland, which was distinctly negative about the desirability of defeating aging but did not really address the feasibility of doing so (though he did assert without any proper scientific argument that the project would never work). That would have been unremarkable, but in the same issue (February 2005), two editorials were also published (one of them over Pontin's name, the other by a staff writer) that were downright insulting about me. These triggered literally thousands of protest letters from readers. Many of those letters protested at the ad hominem nature of the editorials, about which Pontin was unrepentant, but many others protested at the failure to present any scientific substance to justify the claims that SENS was nonsense, and on this latter point Pontin agreed. In order to remedy this omission he tried to get one or another senior biogerontologist to demolish SENS in print, but (surprise surprise) none would agree to do this. He had written his original material on the basis of unambiguous off-the-record advice from said biogeronotologists, so he felt he'd been taken advantage of and worked with me to perform a proper review of SENS's credibillity. This took the form of a prize competition, whereby SENS skeptics were invited to submit a critique of SENS which, jointly with a rebuttal by me, would be assessed by neutral experts. Five distinguished experts, including Craig Venter, agreed to be the judges, and three entries were submitted, one of them by a group of nine bona fide gerontologists. All three entries were judged to be woefully inadequate and the prize was not awarded. Pontin suffered a good deal of loss of face as a result, of course, which is apparent in the way he tried to paint the result as an honourable draw rather than as a vindication of SENS (e.g. by unilaterally awarding the best entry $10,000 even though it didn't win the prize), but no one was fooled.

MLU: How well funded is SENS research today? If suddenly SENS acquired unlimited funding, in what ways would its research be enhanced and accelerated?

ADG: Some parts of SENS are already very well funded—stem cell research, in particular. But most is woefully underfunded because it's more ambitious than most funding bodies like. With an influx of even as little as $10 million per year, it could be transformed—the hardest parts of SENS could move forward at ten times the current rate. The Foundation's goal is $100 million per year.

MLU: What can concerned individuals do to help promote SENS?

ADG: Well, interviewing me is a pretty good thing to do! In general, anything that promotes funding is worthwhile. That means contributing the the Methuselah Foundation, encouraging wealthy friends to do so, promoting debate about the goal of defeating aging so that people begin to be more accepting of its importance, that sort of thing.

MLU: Finally, Aubrey: I am 51 years old; you, I believe, are somewhat younger. A thousand years from now, will I be thanking you?

ADG: It's touch and go. We don't know how long the research will take even if adequate funding is forthcoming, and it might not be. But you certainly have a chance -- and the more we hasten the research, the higher that chance will be.

Read more Machines Like Us interviews here.