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.