Aubrey de Grey - Ending Aging

January 11, 2008

Aubrey de Grey, PhD, is a biomedical gerontologist and Chairman and Chief Science Officer of The Methuselah Foundation. His major research interests are the role and etiology of all forms of cellular and molecular damage in mammalian aging, and the design of interventions to reverse the age-related accumulation of such damage. He has published extensively on these and other areas of gerontology, and is also Editor-in-Chief of Rejuvenation Research, the only peer-reviewed academic journal focusing on intervention in aging. He is the organiser of an ongoing series of conferences and workshops that focus on the key biomedical research relevant to SENS, and he also oversees the Methuselah Foundation's growing sponsorship of SENS research worldwide.

In this conversation with D.J. Grothe, Aubrey de Grey explains aging, and the SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence) program that seeks to reverse aging in our lifetime. He explains how his work is, and is not, continuous with "transhumanism." He addresses challenges the medical and scientific establishment have brought against his work, and how his project is different than the quackery so widespread in the anti-aging movement. He also discusses some of the social and existential problems that ending aging may create for our civilization.

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The Methuselah Foundation

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Comments from the CFI Forums

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For those interested I recommend the article in MIT’s Technology Review that he mentioned. I read it when it came out in the print edition but just noticed that the online version is actually more interesting because it includes responses.
Technology Review on DeGrey

Posted on Jan 11, 2008 at 9:00pm by moreover Comment #1

What the conversation did not pursue were the fascinating implications of a much prolonged life for the psyche of the individual. Kim Stanley Robinson’s superb Mars Trilogy dealt with that to some degree. One of the aspects is that you constantly run into your exes! Few people will stick with the same lover for ‘eternity’. Reminds me of a great line from Julia Sweeney’s monologue when the Mormons tell her in heaven she’ll get to be with her relatives again - thanks but no thanks.

Posted on Jan 12, 2008 at 9:44am by moreover Comment #2

I note there is quite some debate on the MIT Technology Review website on de Grey’s theses. For my own sake, I will happily put to one side the credibility of the science he mentioned in PoI. That is, I am happy to assume it’s all real science until shown otherwise. The problem is that the science he’s talking about is all bleeding-edge stuff. To take one example, I am somewhat familiar with various technologies that have been proposed over the past decades to combat forms of cancer. On this podcast, de Grey not only claimed to have a solution that would treat all cancers, but also atherosclerosis, macular degeneration, alzheimer’s disease, nearsightedness, and various and sundry other age-related maladies.

OK, on the one hand, taking the broader picture, science is a cumulative enterprise. Each year we get closer to cures for every human disease. In the longer term, if we don’t destroy our society or ourselves first, we will indeed find cures for each of them. (Although mechanisms of Darwinian evolution have nasty ways of developing new vectors of attack!)

But on the other hand, his proposed solutions, taken in the context of the broader scientific enterprise amount to overwrought hand-waving. So, he claims to have a cure for cancer. There are literally thousands of scientists and billions of dollars going after this problem. Are we to believe that Aubrey de Grey is the genius who’s figured out a way to solve it all? “There is a company in California that has drugs in clinical trials ...” And so? Most drugs in clinical trials fail. Most drugs that get through clinical trials do not cure disease but only ameliorate it slightly. The fact that nobody has been trumpeting great scientific breakthroughs in aging is because there haven’t been any. Once we solved the problem of public hygene and antibiotics, all the rest has been slow and incremental.

DJ brought up the issue of human lifespans. Indeed, they have tripled in the last several centuries. But that isn’t because the oldest people are living longer. It’s because people who would have died at 15 are instead dying at 80. Pre-modern societies did have members who lived on past 100; it didn’t happen often, but it did happen. So although average lifespan has tripled, maximum lifespan has not. Indeed, arguably it is exactly the same in 2008 that it was in 2008 BCE. And this is a big issue.

If what I say is correct about maximum human lifespan, then the problem of how to extend useful lives regularly past 120 years is an enormous problem. It will likely involve a reorganization of nearly every tissue in the body. To claim that this is somehow similar in difficulty to curing macular degeneration (plus a few odds-and-ends) is not credible. It is likely to be orders of magnitude more complex than curing cancer, and a cure for every form of cancer is certainly decades away.

Again, one may well say that time is long and that these things will be solved in a century, or perhaps in a millennium. OK, so what? What exactly is de Grey proposing? He’s certainly not in a position to do any useful science in all of these fields at once. That’s really the task of the entire worldwide health-science establishment. I’m not sure what purpose his foundation serves in all that, except perhaps to indulge in some hyperbole about the near future. And like it or not, his rhetoric does play into a segment of the fringe-science, and even the quack community.

Posted on Jan 15, 2008 at 4:44pm by dougsmith Comment #3

I agree that the specifics of the science de Grey is talking about has to prove itself, and hasn’t so far. But I do think it might be useful to look at aging as a distinct phenomenon rather than as a collection of disparate age-related diseases, which seems to be what he’s advocating. Interdisciplinary approaches are often productive, though they do fall prey to seeing the potential and not the obstacles due to a lack of adequate understanding of the details of the specialties collected together under the larger rubric. He said outright that he prefers unrealistic optimism to pessimism or lack of ambitious goals, and I think he’s trying to motivate the research community and generate funding, which is as much PR as research in itself. And he feels the risk of seeming to validate pseudoscience is less than the potential benefit of making the next big breakthrough because we are trying to make it and believe it’s possible.

I tend to share your skepticism, Doug, that something as fundamental as senescence can be overcome without some fundamental tinkering with the basic operating principles of a biological system, since it seems to be a built-in feature. Still, that doesn’t mean it’s not an exciting thing to shoot for, and he has a point that most major technological revolutions are close to unimaginably improbable before they occur. And FWIW, I don’t think he really said he has a cure for cancer. I think he said that the idea of limiting the total number of divisions a cell line is capable of could restrict the spread and effects of cancers that develop so that they don’t necessarily become fatal. It is certainly a logical approach, though as with the other approaches he mentioned the devil is in the details and those are not likely to be a simple as the general concept. Still, all-in-all I don’t think the misuse of science by fringe/pseudoscientists should make us overly fearful of exploring unlikely hunches or big, bold programs like this one. We’re never going to get rid of the cranks no matter what we do, and our best defense is to keep coming up with better results than they can.

Posted on Jan 15, 2008 at 5:39pm by mckenzievmd Comment #4

It was a tough listening to me, and I must say that De Grey’s rethoric doens’t help.

I agree with his claim that aging is a physical process, so we can conduct research on the topic in order to stop or at least make it slower. I don’t see that the field is spurious.

On the other hand, I think he talks of very experimental and theorical ideas (as the migration of mitochondrial DNA to the nucleus, the ‘training’ to the inmune system to destroy amyloid, and so on) as if we had the technology to make them work. I see this ideas are, at best, interesting approachs, and as far I as know, we aren’t even close to develop the tecnology to put them into practice. He talks about chromosome manipulation as if it were as easy as manipulating a computer software.

In some way it reminds me the ‘nano robots’  proposed by Eric Drexler.

Posted on Jan 17, 2008 at 7:14am by Barto Comment #5