Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


November 11, 2011

A Biological Fountain of Youth?

Aubrey de Grey says humanity is likely to cure aging in the next century, and he is doing his part.

Vincent Valk

Aubrey de Grey thinks we can cure aging. And he's deadly serious—and scientific—about it.

Aubrey de Grey
"We have a clear moral obligation to develop this technology as soon as possible in order to give people the choice whether to use it."

Aubrey de Grey

"The only certainties in life are death and taxes," Ben Franklin is purported to have said. Well, if Aubrey de Grey is, in fact, not full of shit, then perhaps we can—probably—scratch death off the list. De Grey, a researcher at Cambridge and the chief science officer of the SENS Foundation (more on that below), says he's distilled aging down to its essential components and identified strategies that, given time and money, can turn back all our biological clocks.

That's not so say it's a sure bet. De Grey has readily admitted that the proper research would cost many millions of dollars, and he tends to speak of his predictions in terms of probabilities, not absolutes. Still, he's got a research-based program for beating aging and death and a platform from which to advocate it. Indeed, he thinks humanity has a duty to try to cure aging, which is, after all, our biggest killer. Think of his ideas as the more optimistic version of The Postmortal. De Grey spoke to Gelf by email about the ways Earth might absorb postmortals, how likely he is to succeed, and his standoff with critics. The following interview has been edited for clarity.

Gelf Magazine: What is SENS, and what does the SENS Foundation do?

Aubrey de Grey: SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence) is a biomedical strategy for applying regenerative medicine to aging. That means developing medical interventions that repair the aged body: that restore the molecular and cellular structure of organs and tissues to more or less how they were in young adulthood. It consists of seven strands—interventions targeting seven different categories of age-related molecular and cellular damage. SENS Foundation is a US registered charity that works to hasten the development and dissemination of the SENS therapies. Our main focus is on the particularly hard ones that are poorly funded by other bodies.

Gelf Magazine: You have referred to yourself as a "technologist." What is the difference between a technologist and a scientist, in your view?

Aubrey de Grey: The difference, as I mean those terms, is that scientists are curiosity-driven whereas technologists are goal-directed. Scientists seek to understand nature as an end in itself; if their discoveries lead to new technologies, that's a nice bonus, but it's not their focus. Technologists start from a particular goal of manipulating nature for human benefit, and design potential ways to achieve that using what we know about how nature works. This leads to a big difference in how science and tecchnology are done: Scientists work in small steps, basing each step on the most direct and understandable evidence from past work, whereas technology is all about leaps of insight, putting multiple existing technologies together into a design that can't be tested until it's implemented.

Gelf Magazine: What would you say to people who claim that it is unethical to cure aging?

Aubrey de Grey: Simple: They don't understand what they're saying. Aging is just the set of accumulating causes of the diseases of old age, so If medicine in general is ethical, how can medicine against aging be unethical? It's the same as saying that medicine against age-related diseases is wonderful just so long as it doesn't work very well.

Gelf Magazine: One of our other speakers, Drew Magary, is the author of a fictional take on a genetic cure for aging that eventually wreaks havoc on society. What impact do you think an average lifespan of 500 or 1,000 would have on human society? You've already said that there likely wouldn't be many children, but wouldn't the same people living nearly forever create some pretty huge problems, even if overpopulation isn't one of them?

Aubrey de Grey: I have said that that could be an outcome, but it's equally plausible that we will increase the carrying capacity of the planet (by new technologies that reduce our ecological footprint, such as nuclear fusion) quite fast enough to allow population to increase. But the key point here, which applies equally to overpopulation or to any other apprehension you might name, is that we don't know what such developments (or, for that matter, changes in humanity's priorities) will occur in the distant future, so we have a clear moral obligation to develop this technology as soon as possible in order to give people the choice whether to use it.

Gelf Magazine: Why do you think your ideas have been met with so much resistance among gerontologists, biologists, and others in the scientific community?

Aubrey de Grey: First, let's be clear— it's only gerontologists who have resisted, and by no means all of them, and indeed fewer of them as time's gone on. The reason why is clear from what they've written (once I forced them to write, rather than just ridicule me off the record)—they didn't know enough about the already published underlying experimental work on which I was basing my proposals, so they thought we would be starting from a much lower base. Also, they hadn't taken the trouble to understand my proposals properly. Of course part of it is that I have received a lot of attention, and people worry that even talking about very long lives, however well-justified by science, will scare influential people and bring the field into disrepute and harm funding. But that's just cowardly. The truth is what is supposed to matter in science, and also in technology.

Gelf Magazine: You were trained as a computer scientist and worked in artificial intelligence before turning to biology and aging research. Do you think your experience in those fields has influenced your ideas and your approach?

Aubrey de Grey: Oh yes, very much. Like lots of other scientists who switched fields, I benefited hugely from being able to apply the skills of a researcher to a field in which I was not encumbered by its conventional wisdom. I thought a bit differently about the issues, and came up with new ideas very quickly.

Gelf Magazine: You've said that the first person who will live to 1,000 is currently alive. According to a GQ profile, this claim is based on the idea that that we are "at the cusp of an age of biotechnology innovation." Why do you believe this?

Aubrey de Grey: That's a bit of a simplification of what I think—I think we're definitely in an era of biotechnology innovation, but the cusp in question refers to longevity escape velocity, i.e. the nonlinear impact that gradually increasing sophistication of rejuvenation biotechnology will have on longevity. As I've explained in many papers and lectures, we can foresee reaching a point quite soon where people's biological age is not increasing (and is indeed decreasing) with time, because the rejuvenation therapies are repairing the damage of aging faster than our metabolism is creating it.

Gelf Magazine: But why do you think we will reach this point "quite soon," as opposed to 500 or 1,000 or 2,000 years from now?

Aubrey de Grey: When someone says we can foresee reaching a given point by a given time, they're not saying they think we will reach it in that time. As you presumably know from my extensive past output on this matter, I predict that we have a 50% chance of getting there within 25 years, but at least a 10% chance of not getting there for 100 years. How do I reach those numbers? Intuition—but starting from a very good base of knowledge about what we can already do, and thus what remains to be done, and comparing it with how long other things took in the past that feel similarly hard.

Gelf Magazine: In a 2005 article in EMBO Journal that harshly criticized your ideas, Huber Warner and 27 other biogerontologists signed on to to the follwing statement, among others: "de Grey fails to mention that none of these approaches has ever been shown to extend the lifespan of any organism, let alone humans." Isn't that a pretty big stumbling block? How do you plan to overcome this, and what would you say to defend SENS in the meantime?

Aubrey de Grey: No, it's not a stumbling block at all. As I stated in my response to that paper, which appeared in the same issue:

They stress my failure to note that no SENS intervention—in isolation—has ever been shown to extend any organism's lifespan. I do not recall Henry Ford alerting potential customers that the components of a car—in isolation—remain obstinately stationary when burning petrol is poured on them, nor do I recall his being castigated for this omission. Similarly, if engineers followed scientists' lead in regarding the most direct evidence as the most valuable, we would still be trying to fly by flapping.

I hope this helps you to understand the importance of the distinction between science and technology, and the damage done when the media and others so uncritically swallow what scientists say when they evaluate technology in their own terms.

Gelf Magazine: I see the logic behind your answer, but do you think perhaps there are reasons why science, and particularly medicine, is different from engineering? I mean, Henry Ford obviously wasn't talking about people's lives.

Aubrey de Grey: No, obviously I don't think there are. The onus is on others to identify some specific, relevant way in which human bodies are not machines, isn't it?

Gelf Magazine: Do you think this criticism stems from a misunderstanding of how you approach your work? I realize this was awhile ago, but reading both the note and your response I got the impression that you were talking past each other, to an extent.

Aubrey de Grey: They were certainly talking past me, but of course that was because they hadn't read most of my output. Yes, certainly their criticism stemmed from a misunderstanding.

Gelf Magazine: You said that fewer gerontologists have objected to your work as time has gone on. Have any of the signers of the note backtracked at all in recent years? Either way, why have fewer gerontologists objected to your work as time has gone on?

Aubrey de Grey: Yes, quite a few have, and more have moved from vocal detractor to silence or from silence to vocal supporter. Warner himself (who agreed to be the EMBO paper's corresponding author because he was in the least-vulnerable academic position, as associate dean in Minnesota) actually approached me only three weeks after the EMBO paper came out, asking if he and I could publish a more even-handed exchange of views in Journals of Gerontology Biological Sciences, which he then edited. I, of course agreed, and we wrote the papers—but then his editorial board wouldn't let him proceed! So in the end they were published in the journal I edit, Rejuvenation Research.

Vincent Valk

Vincent Valk is online editor for Chemical Week magazine.

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Article by Vincent Valk

Vincent Valk is online editor for Chemical Week magazine.

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