Phil Micans interviews the renowned British biomedical gerontologist and Chief Science Officer of the SENS Foundation, Dr Aubrey De Grey about his work and opinions
This is a transcript of the interview with Dr de Grey above
It’s a great pleasure to be here in Cambridge right on the Cam on a beautiful July morning with Dr Aubrey de Grey, one of the great well known characters in our field and resident of Cambridge. I’d like to say good morning to you Aubrey.
Good morning Phil. Thanks for coming.
Perhaps if I could start with the obvious question, which is could you say a few words about your background and the positions that you hold today please.
Sure, I was originally trained not as a biologist at all but as a computer scientist, and I did computer science research in industry for 6 or 7 years, during which I met my wife Adelaide Carpenter who was at that time a senior professor at the university of California in San Diego, and through her I first of all through informal means learnt a lot of biology. But then gradually became aware that gerontology, the study of aging, especially the study of what to do about aging was a real backwater and not studied nearly enough. So eventually I decided to switch fields and I was very fortunate to first of all have a few ideas that were well received and generally to become a reasonably respected member of that community pretty quickly even though I was doing it in my spare time at that mind. Then after that I began to have some ideas about how to really intervene in aging much more effectively than the ideas that had been had been around before. And that’s really how things have gone from there. Increasingly I was able to get people interested, and especially as I was able to attract funding, a little bit of funding to pay for me to do some of this work. I was able to move out of the more computing areas that i was in before, and to become the chief science officer of a foundation. A charity based in the US that is the main headquarters so to speak where I work now. We are based in California, and we are called SENS foundation, and we obviously have a website sens.org. And it’s definitely a proper job now.
That’s great, good to hear. Thank you
Well thank you for telling us a little bit about yourself Aubrey. You mentioned there SENS, could you tell us what that acronym stands for and what the organization does?
SENS is an acronym for a concept that that I came up with back in 2000 and it stands for Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence. Which is a hell of a mouthful and it has actually some justification in gerontological history so to speak. We don’t generally use the full name and just call it SENS. SENS essentially is about not just slowing down the clock of aging but actually turning it backwards. Repairing the accumulating molecular and cellular damage of aging and the concept that I came up with, the general theme of research that I came up with back in 2000, was that this might actually be a very great deal easier than slowing the clock, which is rather counter intuitive but it seems to be the case. SENS foundation is essentially built around trying to make that happen. We do a lot of research both in house in our laboratory in Mountain View, California and also in university labs which we support around the world, mostly in the US but not all. And on top of that we are focused on making sure that as and when this technology actually comes into existence we can get it out there as fast as possible. So we do a bunch of education and outreach of various types.
Thank you, very interesting
So if you don’t mind Aubrey, may I ask you a personal question, what was it that first triggered your interest in this important aging research?
A lot of people when you ask them how they get interested in, in getting involved in, let’s say the crusade to combat aging, they’ll say that they had some kind of eureka moment, an epiphany that led them to understand that aging is actually quite bad for you and that we might be able to do something about it. I didn’t have one of those. I always knew perfectly well, ever since the dawn of time, since I was a kid I was quite sure, that aging is first of all very bad for you and it’d be good if we could fix it and secondly that in principle we should be able to fix it in due course. The thing I didn’t know was that pretty much everybody else thought otherwise. I presumed that everyone knew that and that we didn’t talk about it much in the same way we don’t talk about other obvious things, like the colour of the sky for example. Then through talking to my wife especially and to other biologists, especially senior biologists, I began to be aware that actually this wasn’t the case. Even biologists let alone the general public took the view that aging was not very interesting and not very important. I was completely horrified and eventually I decided that there might be a chance for me to actually make a contribution to hastening the development of this technology so it was pretty much a no brainer for me to switch fields.
Thank you, interesting.
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?
The thing about aging is that it does affect the organization of the body at every level, molecular, cellular, systemic, so in order to be an expert in gerontology and the biology of aging as a whole you have to be every sort of biologist, a cell biologist, a geneticist, a biochemist, a physiologist and so on. And certainly at rejuvenation research, the journal that I am editor in chief of we publish a very wide variety of different things, we are still pretty much the only journal, certainly the highest impact journal, that is focused on intervention against aging rather than just on understanding aging, and it is very good to be in that position. Actually yes, the amount of information that we are talking about here, not only coming into the journal but also coming in from other literature that we need to stay on top of, is more than I could do on my own these days. I actually have one or two of my staff whose main job is to actually monitor the literature and keep up with everything. And identify ways in which it might be relevant to changing our research priorities for example.
Marvelous, thank you.
I should imagine a lot of people watching the film today might be saying oh yes I know Dr Aubrey de Grey, he’s often in the press, he makes large claims about the possibility of longevity, and obviously quite famously you said that the person who might live to 1000 is alive today. I wonder if you could just explain a little bit about how you think this might be achievable.
Well first the thing I want to focus on is that my work isn’t really about longevity, it’s about health. I’m interested in developing medicines that will postpone the ill health of old age. And I think it is absolutely critical that everyone should understand that the only way that we would ever achieve any substantial extension of how long people live is as a side effect of keeping them healthy for longer. We are absolutely not going to be able, it is vastly harder to keep people alive in a frail state than it is to stop them getting into that state in the first place or to restore them to a healthy state. And that is what our work is all about; anything to do with longevity is a side effect. So of course people are very much fixated on that aspect of it, that’s how they think about things when you talk about intervening in aging, and so I have to give straight answers to a straight questions, and the reason I come up with numbers like a 1000 for how long people would live, once we really get on top of aging, once we start to able to control the diseases and disabilities of old age, to the same level that we already control most infectious diseases. The way I come up with those numbers is just by looking at the statistics of today, and saying well how long would people live if aging already didn’t exist and therefore if the causes of death were simply causes whose incidence is not dependent on long ago you were born. And that is easy to do because you can just look at the frequency with which people die in young adulthood today in the west for example. So if you reach your 26th birthday, what is your chance of not reaching your 27th birthday, it’s basically less than 1 in a 1000, so if you maintain that probability of death each year however long you live then of course you get a number in 4 digits for how long you would live, on average. Of course some people would live a lot longer than that, and some people would live less long, it’s just like a half life, just like a radioactive sample. Now actually it’s easy to say that it’s a very conservative estimate because of course we are also going to be developing other technology all the time that reduces the risk of death from causes not dependent on age. So, in fact, I tend to be actually quite coy in terms of what’s actually going on in terms of longevity, but as I say the key thing is it’s all about health.
Yes thank you Aubrey, and I think that is a very important point. And I know that you and I both know that a lot people still think that by being older they’re going to be exposed to these diseases and disorders so therefore they don’t want to be older. Of course we are talking about a new era where people will be older but they won’t be exposed to these diseases or disorders. In other words they’ll remain lucid and agile and independent, which is a very important point. And I think you already partly answered this question but I’ll just ask it again if I may and that is you see as a consequence then of maintaining health is extending longevity as well.
The whole idea here is that the human body is a machine, the human body is a really, really complicated machine but it is still a machine. And that means its function is determined by its structure. If by medical intervention we can maintain or restore the structure of the human body, at the molecular level, and at the cellular level, and the organ level, as it is in young adulthood, and that means that the body will work both mentally and physically just like a young adulthood’s body. Although we will know a lot more because we have been around a long time and all the advantageous things about aging will still be retained. The key thing there is how long the body lasts is just one aspect of that function, as a side effect.
Now of course naturally if these changes come, and hopefully they’ll come fairly soon, they’re going to change all manner of human existence. And of course we do hear, I think and I’m sure you’ll agree with me, the rather absurd arguments, what are we going to do with the pensions, the life insurances, or indeed the classic one there are already too many people on the planet, what are we going to do with all the extra people. Could you tell us please how do you normally answer those questions?
I think actually that it is perfectly reasonable to examine and to examine and to have concerns about the societal and psychological and other consequences that would result from the development of medicine that brings aging under real medical control. It’s going to be turbulent, it really is going to turbulent. I think therefore the key thing that we have to do in really discussing these things is to have a sense of proportion. We have to understand first of all that we have had turbulent episodes resulting from the development of technology in the past, the industrial revolution wasn’t exactly smooth, but there aren’t many people around these days who would prefer it hadn’t happened. Secondly we have got to remember that it is very hard to predict how the world is going to be in many different ways in the distant future, let’s say 50 years from now, and supposing we don’t have aging anymore, you might say well there’s going to be problems with having too many people but hang on what’s wrong with having 7 billion people, what’s wrong, is that each of them has an environmental impact, a carbon footprint and so on. So of course we have to actually ask the question in the context of the possibility of other technology being developed, let’s say for example nuclear fusion that suddenly reduces our carbon footprint and the current capacity of the planet duly rises. Same goes for predictions about fertility, how many kids the average woman is going to have and also for that matter about how old they’re going to be when they have them, which is rising all the time and in most people’s estimation rise a good deal faster at the point when we cease to have menopause as a biological deadline so to speak, which is one aspect of defeating aging. So there’s many, many things that one has to take into account and that’s why I say that the key thing we have to ask ourselves today is whether we are entitled to second guess the future. If we say oh dear there’s going to be all these problems, let’s not make these problems because our descendents won’t want to have those problems then what we are doing is presuming that the problems at that time are going to be and perceived as more important than the problem we have today that we are proposing to stop, namely aging. And the problem that we are proposing to stop, aging is a rather large problem, let’s face it every single day 100,000 people every single day get sick usually for a long time and eventually die because of this thing called aging. That’s a very, very big problem indeed, more than 2/3 of all deaths worldwide in the developed world, industrialized world that’s 90% of all deaths are caused by aging, it’s an enormous problem. And to say that we shouldn’t fix it, is to essentially say that we ought to condemn people to death at that rate of 100,000 a day to an unnecessarily early and unnecessarily painful death indefinitely just because we think that other technology won’t be developed or other particular lifestyle changes aren’t going to happen, and the consequences would be even worse than the problem we have today, which is simply illogical.
Yes thank you Aubrey and I agree. It’s interesting isn’t it that deaths by aging are normally referred to as natural causes.
That’s actually an enormous part of the problem that aging is considered to be something natural and that death from aging is considered synonymous with death from quote natural causes, in other words death is in absence of the various diseases of old age, like Alzheimer’s and cardio-vascular disease and most cancers and so on, that we all know that we don’t want. The most outstanding amount of money is spent trying to directly attack those diseases and its actually wasted money in a very real sense because these diseases are increasingly driven by the process of aging that precedes them, and therefore any attempt to address the disease directly is inherently going to work for a very short amount of time, it will only suspend the disease a little bit. What this means is that while we carry on thinking that aging is something distinct from these diseases rather than the cause of them, we are always going to be missing the point. We have to understand that the diseases of old age are simply aspects of the later stages of the life long process that we call aging. And therefore that death from those diseases is also death from aging and not only death from natural causes.
That makes sense thank you.
So I’m sure you’ll agree with me Aubrey when I say that it’s our minds that have to adapt to this problem. At a recent Oxford debate you did say that we owe it to future generations to start now and not to pass on this remarkable opportunity. I hope that your SENS work will continue to prosper and highlight the way. How can someone sponsor your work?
Well the first thing I want to say about supporting this work is that SENS Foundation is a public charity so in the first instance anyone based in the US can donate directly to the foundation and get tax relief. Furthermore we have a subsidiary in the UK; in fact it’s a European charity so anyone in the European Union can do the same thing. Certainly funding is the main obstacle here, we have a plan called SENS that is very robust and which we are very optimistic and confident will actually work, and we furthermore have the world’s leading scientists in all the relative areas, in the component areas that make up SENS really wanting to work on this. So the only thing that’s missing is the resources to make it happen. And I would estimate that at the moment, over the past 6 to 8 years since we have been doing this, the progress we have made has been good but it’s only been about one third of the rate that we could have achieved with the right level of funding, and that’s a really important thing. Another thing not just funding, of course not everyone’s got money, is advocacy because the fact is people who do have money whether its private individuals or the governments they are not working in isolation. Therefore the general mood of this, the understanding of both the feasibility and the desirability of defeating aging with medicine, is something that has to get into the subculture, into the mindset of the general public, in order to get people more confidant to actually move forward with this. And that is why I do so much media and also why I do so many lectures and so on but the fact is it’s not just about me here, we’ve got to get people in general taking up the baton doing advocacy, talking to your friends, talking to your colleagues, talking to your family, talking to your colleagues in work who may be wealthier than you, getting them talking to the colleagues that may be wealthier than them to get this whole thing really moving.
A real networking challenge, but very worthwhile. Thank you. I know you are a very busy man Aubrey and I really thank you for taking time out of your schedule to come and talk to us today, and sharing a pint with us on a lovely day in Cambridge.
It was my pleasure. I’m never too busy for you Phil. It’s great fun.
To learn more about Dr de Grey's work or to support his SENS Foundation please visit www.sens.org