PTN interviews Dr. Aubrey de Grey, researcher of anti-aging regenerative medicine
SENS foundation is a charity that develops early stage therapies against aging. Aubrey de Grey answers our questions on his work at the SENS foundation, his thoughts on the future of gerontology and the effort to fight illness by bringing aging under medical control.
Briefly, how did you get involved in gerontology and what motivated you to start the SENS Research Foundation?
I got involved in gerontology about 20 years ago when I discovered that hardly any biologists were trying to do anything about aging. Until then I had always assumed that everyone understood that aging is the world’s worst problem and that defeating it was a major focus of biology. I co-founded SENS Research Foundation (and the Methuselah Foundation before it) because I saw that the most promising source of funding for this sort of long-term translational work was philanthropy, rather than government funding or the private sector.
Could you highlight some basic concepts of research into engineered negligible senescence (such as the repair and maintenance approach)?
The merit of the damage-repair approach, which is the core idea of SENS, is not really controversial: it’s obvious that if we can comprehensively eliminate the causes of age-related ill-health, that would be much better than attacking the diseases themselves, and it’s also better than just slowing down the accumulation of damage. The reason it was never considered before I suggested it is that the techniques we will need to develop in order to repair the various types of damage are very diverse, and gerontologists had not seriously considered that they could be developed at all. In order to show that the damage repair approach is feasible, I drew on a lot of work that had been done by biologists in totally different fields.
What do you currently work on? Where is the bulk of SENS' funds going?
We have about a dozen different projects going on, which span most of the areas that have been described in my publications, out of the $5 million that we spend each year, most goes on these research projects, two of them in our center in California, and the rest in various institutes and universities across the USA (plus one in the UK). We also spend some money on outreach and education.
Why dedicate your life to advocating regenerative medicine and not advancing cryonics? Do you think that cryonics could be an important temporary solution until humanity becomes much more advanced?
I am actually a vocal supporter of cryonics, and one of the projects we have supported is focused on the development of a new cryopreservation protocol that could be immensely effective in improving the quality of cryopreservation. I certainly think cryonics should be far better supported, and it is a tragedy that only a couple of thousand people are signed up for it.
What have been the most interesting and promising developments in the field of gerontology in the last 5 years? How you see the role of engineered negligible senescence in these developments?
That’s a tricky question to answer, because it depends what you include in “gerontology”. To me, gerontology is the study of aging as a basic science - the quest to understand aging better and better. But what SENS Research Foundation does is to try to manipulate aging - to postpone it better and better. And promising advances in one of those quests are not necessarily promising in the other one. So the most promising developments in gerontology would include things like the finding that calorie restriction doesn’t work much in monkeys, or that naked mole rats protect themselves from cancer using long-chain hyaluronic acid; the most promising advances in engineering negligible senescence would include things like the removal of amyloid in Alzheimer’s patients using vaccination, or the protection of cells from oxidised cholesterol by giving them a bacterial enzyme that breaks it down.
Do you think that organizations funding specific age-related diseases such as cancer or dementia should also consider funding approaches such as engineered negligible senescence?
They certainly should! the vast majority of the work that is funded by such organisations is doomed to failure because it targets the disease too late in the process. Really, SENS is just multi-pronged preventative medicine for all those diseases.
How have attitudes to solving the problem of aging changed over the last 10 years? Has progress in attitude been faster or slower that you anticipated?
Progress has been slow but steady, and it’s accelerating. It’s been slower than I would have hoped, of course, but about the same as I expected.
In the recent news article in journal Nature “Aging pushed as treatable condition” Stephanie Lederman was quoted: “What we’re trying to do is increase health span, not look for eternal life.” What is your comment on this and similar statements.
It’s very sad that people in politically sensitive positions, such as Stephanie, are forced to say things like that all the time. Stephanie knows, like everyone else in the field, that longevity is a side-effect of health: if you increase healthspan (i.e. you postpone the ill-health of old age), you will similarly increase lifespan. Everyone in the field also knows that there is no good age to die - that however much we succeed in postponing age-related disease and disability, we will always want to postpone it more.
But they also know that politicians and the general public are petrified of thinking rationally about all this, because aging has them in such a tight psychological stranglehold that all they want to do is put it out of their minds - so they feel forced into this downright dishonest kind of language that implicitly deprecates those few people who dare to be honest about the fact that the longevity side-effect of postponing ill-health is a side-effect that we should welcome. They feel that if they were to endorse the desirability of much longer lifespans, they would cause a backlash in political circles and a reduction in research funding. I’m quite sure they are wrong, and that if the whole field were as honest about all this as I’ve always been then it would have far MORE money by now - but there seems to be no way to persuade most of my colleagues of that.
Where do you anticipate the most progress, where will gerontology be in the next 5 and 10 years? Where do you see SENS in 10 years time?
Gerontology will continue to press forward and make increasingly detailed discoveries about how aging works, but those discoveries will be increasingly esoteric and irrelevant to the design of effective therapies. SENS will probably have done the hard part: it will have achieved what I call “robust mouse rejuvenation”, postponing aging by a couple of years in middle-aged mice, and I am sure that that will be enough to tip public and political opinion into a full-scale war on aging.
With anti-aging medicine becoming a more investable area, companies are emerging hoping to make progress through various different approaches: Calico, Human Longevity Inc, Biotrove, Sirtris and others. Will SENS merge/combine efforts with any of these?
We want to work closely with all such organisations, because they all have important roles to play. However, we will probably remain independent for a long time, so as to ensure continued progress in the most difficult areas of SENS, which are not yet ready for real commercialization.
You comment in your talks that tinkering with metabolism is not a viable approach, because it is too complicated and impossible to modify without causing "more harm than good". However, it seems a number of anti aging companies, focused on drugs and genetic engineering, seem to be pursuing this route. Can you explain this disagreement?
Great question. The short answer is that there is one exception to my comment, but it’s an exception that doesn’t seem likely to have much practical significance for humans. The exception is calorie restriction. The drugs and other simple interventions (including genetic ones) that companies are looking at are almost all focused on making the body behave as if it is in a famine. The motivation, of course, is that famine (and these drugs) can greatly postpone aging in short-lived laboratory organisms like mice, rats and (even more so) worms. But it turns out - and for very obvious evolutionary reasons - that this doesn’t work nearly so well in long-lived species as in short-lived ones. The most that I think humans can possibly benefit by that kind of approach is a couple of years.
Do you see the “SENS plan” being updated over time?
Absolutely, but probably only in details. One of the most encouraging aspects of the past 15 years since I formulated the SENS plan is that it has not needed to change: people have discovered new examples of damage within the seven categories, but nothing outside of those categories. Also, there have been various important technological advances that make the SENS therapies easier to develop, such as CRISPR, but no discoveries that make them harder.
Aubrey de Grey