Overcoming Death

Aubrey de Grey: Aging and Overcoming Death

Editor’s Note: Dr. Aubrey de Grey is a true maverick. He challenges the most basic assumption underlying the human condition – that aging is inevitable. He argues instead that aging is a disease – one that can be cured if it’s approached as “an engineering problem.”

He is a biomedical gerontologist based in Cambridge, UK, and is the Chief Science Officer of SENS Foundation, a non-profit charity dedicated to combating the aging process. He is also Editor-in-Chief of Rejuvenation Research, the world’s only peer-reviewed journal focused on intervention in aging. His research interest encompass the causes of all cellular side-effects of metabolism (“damage”) that constitute mammalian aging and the design of interventions to repair and /or obviate that damage. You can read his full bio from here here here and here.

eTalk’s Niaz Uddin has interviewed Aubrey de Grey recently to gain insights about his ideas, research and works in the field of aging which is given below.

Niaz: Dear Aubrey, I know you are a very busy man and I really appreciate you for taking time out of your schedule to join me. We are very thrilled and honored to have you at eTalks.

Aubrey: My pleasure.

Niaz: At the beginning of our interview, could you please say a few words about your background and the positions that you hold today?

Aubrey: I was initially trained as a computer scientist, but I switched to the biology of aging at around 30 when I discovered, to my astonishment, that very few researchers were really working on doing anything about aging. Currently I’m the Chief Science Officer of SENS Research Foundation, a California-based biomedical research charity focused on developing the strategy for defeating aging that I proposed back in 2000.

Niaz: That’s really interesting. What did first attract you to the idea of physical immortality?

Aubrey: First, let’s be totally clear that I don’t work on “immortality”, or any variations on that theme. I work on health: I want to let people stay fully healthy, i.e. functioning both physically and mentally as well as a young adult, at any age. Once this is achieved, it is very likely that there will be a dramatic side-benefit in terms of how long people live – but that’s what it is, a side-benefit. I do not work on longevity for longevity’s sake. So, to answer what your question should have been: what attracted me to the crusade to bring aging under medical control was simply that it was obviously humanity’s worst problem but hardly anyone was working on it.

Niaz: What’s so wrong with getting old? Is getting old the biggest health crisis facing the world?

Aubrey: The way you phrase the question incorporates most of the answer. Most people have a totally distorted idea of what aging is: they think of it as distinct from the diseases of old age, and as something natural and inevitable, like the passage of time. So “getting old” is used pretty much interchangeably as either getting chronologically old or getting frail. WTF?! We don’t ask what’s so wrong with getting Alzheimer’s, so it makes no sense to ask what’s so wrong with going downhill in all ways.

Niaz: You’re a true maverick and you challenge the most basic assumption underlying the human condition — that aging is inevitable. You argue instead that aging is a disease – one that can be cured if it’s approached as “an engineering problem.” Before we focus on your efforts to understand the aging process, perhaps we should first say a few words about aging itself. Why do organisms age, and die?

Aubrey: Aging is far less mysterious than most people assume. In its essence, aging of a living organism is no different than aging of a simple, man-made machine – which should be no surprise, since after all the body is a machine (whatever one’s view may be as regards any non-physical elements that combine with the body to form the human being). Thus, it’s totally reasonable – I would say obvious, but apparently it isn’t obvious to everyone – to look at how we already succeed in extending the healthy longevity of cars or aeroplanes waaay beyond how long they were designed to last, and apply the same principles to human aging. And those principles come down, in a nutshell to just one idea: preventative maintenance, i.e. repairing pre-symptomatic damage before symptoms emerge.

Niaz: So does the process of aging serve some evolutionary purpose — and if it does, will we run into trouble if we attempt to counteract it?

Aubrey: It does not. From the 1880s or so until the 1950s it was thought that aging helped species to be more nimble in responding evolutionarily to changing environments, but then Medawar pointed out that mortality from causes that aren’t related to age is so high in the wild that there are too few frail individuals to drive natural selection for aging even if in principle it would be a good thing for the species. Medawar’s observation was somewhat over simplistic, but today almost all gerontologists agree that his basic idea was correct and that there are no “genes for aging”.

Niaz: You are the Chief Science Officer of the SENS Foundation. What that acronym stands for and what the organization does? 

Aubrey: Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence, but I know that’s a bit of a mouthful. We do biomedical research to develop regenerative medicine against aging, i.e rejuvenation biotechnology that will restore people’s physical and mental function (and appearance, yes!) to that of a young adult.

Niaz: What’s been the most striking piece of data to support your hypotheses?

Aubrey: That’s not really the right question: I don’t have a “hypothesis”. What I have is a technological plan – a proposal for how to manipulate an aspect of nature – whereas hypotheses are conjectures about how nature works in the absence of manipulation. The reason I need to make this ostensibly nit-picking distinction is that pioneering technology does not proceed by the accumulation of data: rather, it consists of a leap of faith that putting established technologies together will deliver more than the sum of the parts. So we (and others) have certainly been making great progress in developing the component technologies that will in due course combine to defeat aging, but calling those advances “support for a hypothesis” is a misuse of terms.

Niaz: As you know, now we are living in an exciting era of bioinformatics and big data. What do you think about the role of bioinformatics and big data in this field?

Aubrey: The relevance of big data to biomedical gerontology is pretty much the same as throughout biology. It speeds up a huge variety of bench experiments, but it doesn’t derive many big ideas itself.

Niaz: Some people regard aging research, and efforts to extend lifespan, with suspicion. Why do you think that is? What is your response to those concerns?

Aubrey: It’s embodied in your question: people who recoil at this work do so because they regard “aging research” and “efforts to extend lifespan” as synonymous, when in fact “aging research” and “efforts to eliminate age-related disease and disability” are synonymous. The tragedy is that this misconception is so entrenched: even though gerontoogists have been correcting this error since decades before I came along, but no one wants to hear it, probably mainly because they don’t want to get their hopes up. I think this is finally changing now, but I’m not slowin down my advocacy efforts.

Niaz: You regard cancer as the greatest potential threat to your longevity program, but couldn’t mutant viruses represent an even greater threat?

Aubrey: Viruses are a huge issue, but they are small (they don’t have many genes), whereas cancer has the entire human genome at its mutational disposal. Pandemics are a problem mainly because we aren’t putting enough money into vaccine development: if we can just get our priorities right, the chances of any pandemic really taking off are infinitesimal.

Niaz: What are the other key problems in aging research?

Aubrey: Well, basically most non-SENS research revolves around identifying simple interventions (drugs, genes, diet) that can in some harmonious unitary way slow aging down. I support such research, because it may in many cases make a dent in aging far sooner than SENS will – but its impact will be far less than what SENS will do once it exists. As such, the way to save the most lives and alleviate the most suffering is to pursue both approaches.

Niaz: 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. It will really be exciting. You have assigned $13 million dollars out if $16.5 million dollars that you inherited from your mom to SENS. In addition, you have dedicated your life, all your time and money to this mission. Do you think you’re going to be successful as well as going to find out the ways to overcome death? What is the timeframe?

Aubrey: As a researcher, I intrinsically accept that I don’t know whether my work will succeed, but I am sufficiently motivated by the knowledge that it MAY succeed. I don’t think of myself as a betting man, but in that sense I suppose I am. As for timeframes, I think there is a 50% (at least) chance that this research will get us to what I’ve called “longevity escape velocity” within 20-25 years.

Niaz: WOW! That’s going to be incredible. Can the planet cope with people living so long?

Aubrey: People are incredibly bad at understanding the influences of the trajrctory of global population and how it would be altered by the defeat of aging, which is why we are funding a very prestigious group in Denver to analyse it authoritatively. The short answer is yes, we believe that the planet can certainly cope, partly because the currently-observed falling fertility rates and rising age at childbirth will continue, but also becaue new technologies such as renewable energy and nuclear fusion will greatly increase the planet’s carrying capacity.

Niaz: Google’s CEO, Larry Page, said: “Illness and aging affect all our families. With some longer term, moonshot thinking around healthcare and biotechnology, I believe we can improve millions of lives.” And very recently Google has announced a new company called Calico that will focus on health and well-being, in particular the challenge of aging and associated diseases.  What do you think about this move by Google?

Aubrey: It’s the single best piece of news in all the time I’ve been working in this field. Even though Calico is taking its time to determine its research priorities, I’m very confident that it will make huge contributions to hastening the defeat of aging.

Niaz: Now, as the editor of the journal of rejuvenation, obviously you have a lot of information coming across your desk all the time. I was wondering is there any particular research that excites you at the moment?

Aubrey: I really don’t want to single anything out. SENS is a divide-and-conquer strategy, and all its strands are moving forward very promisingly.

Niaz: You are exceptionally well connected with other scientists. I have seen you at TEDMED 2012 Conference. About how many scientific conferences do you attend each year? What is your main means of becoming acquainted with other scientists?

Aubrey: I give about 50 talks a year, at conferences, universities and elsewhere. I meet scientists there, of course, but also by contacts based on reading publications. In that regard I’m no different than any other scientist.

Niaz: What are your goals for the next decade?

Aubrey: To become obsolete. My goal is that by 2020 or so there will be people involved in this mission who are much better than me at all the tasks I’m good at and that currently the mission relies on me to perform.

Niaz: Is there anything else you would like for readers of eTalks to know about your work?

Aubrey: The main thing I want to communicate is that shortage of funding is delaying the defeat of aging by many years. My current estimate is that we could be going about three times faster if funding were not limiting – and the tragedy is that even a ten-fold increase, to something like $100m per year (way under 1% of the NIH’s butget), would pretty much eliminate that slowdown. We have a solid plan, and we have the world’s best researchers waiting and eager to get on and implement. All we need is the resources to let them get on with it.

Niaz: Dear Aubrey, thanks a lot for giving us time and sharing us your invaluable ides. We are wishing you very good luck for your tremendous success. Please take very good care of yourself.

Aubrey: My pleasure. Many thanks for the invitation.

Ending Note: It’s been more than a decade since Dr. Aubrey de Grey has established the principles behind SENS. You can visit sens.org and look at the summary of the principles over there. Also, of course, Dr. Aubrey recommends you his book “Ending Aging” which covers the strategy in lots of detail.

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Further Reading:

1. Viktor Mayer-Schönberger on Big Data Revolution

2. Gerd Leonhard on Big Data and the Future of Media, Marketing and Technology

3. Ely Kahn on Big Data, Startup and Entrepreneurship

4. Brian Keegan on Big Data

5. danah boyd on Future of Technology and Social Media

6. Irving Wladawsky-Berger on Evolution of Technology and Innovation

7. Horace Dediu on Asymco, Apple and Future of Computing

8. James Allworth on Disruptive Innovation

9. James Kobielus on Big Data, Cognitive Computing and Future of Product