Aubrey de Grey on the SENS Challenge

A spirited discussion has been taking place on the Gerontology Research Group list with respect to the $20,000 SENS Challenge issued by the MIT Technology Review yesterday. Some folks in favor of the whole venture, some against, but here are biomedical gerontologist Aubrey de Grey's thoughts in response to other comments and an anecdote from biochemist Steven Spindler regarding the perniciousness of journalists:

Steve Spindler has summed it up best -- and I can add to his story by telling you that he did so good a job of refusing to ridicule me that the broadcaster (NBC) never aired the segment. The challenge has been brought into existence as a joint enterprise by Technology Review and the Methuselah Foundation. The reason from TR's point of view is that they have done themselves a lot of harm by doing a hatchet job on me without being able to back it up with authoritative names and they're keen to remedy that. (Jason Pontin is actually very ambivalent on the desirability issue -- one should not interpret Sherwin Nuland's views as representing Jason.) The reason from my (and [the Methuselah Foundation]'s) point of view is much more charitable: I know that most of my colleagues are inclined to be less conscientious than Steve when asked to opine on me, and I also know why, namely (a) that my conclusion in terms of potential life expectancy is very extreme and thus politically unpredictable, and (b) that the particular approach I advocate, the piecemeal engineering approach, is antithetical to mainstream thinking and thus tends to threaten funding for work that is currently in favour. The fact that I have no experimental training is an easy hook upon which to hang a curt dismissal of anything uncomfortable that I might have to say. I am therefore doing my colleagues a big favour with this: I am letting their silence help me rather than hurt me, They mostly know that I'm not an idiot and that they are unequipped to critique my proposals in detail, but they don't like to say so. Now, they don't need to say so -- I'll gain credibility, and more with every day that passes, just from their silence.

Just so.


Since my own personal views on the subject of life extension are usually misunderstood by those committed to fighting aging, perhaps some clarification is in order. Aubrey is right when he describes me as "ambivalent." I think

1). Indefinite life might be good for me, and I might wish it for those that I love, but an entire world of superagenarians might be a bad thing.
2). I am not sure significant life extension is possible: even if we could avoid senescence in replicating cells, DNA damage seems an unavoidable consequence of metabolism - and I don't know how that could be "fixed."
3). But if SENS is reasonable, it's obviously very important news, and worthy of serious attention: human beings have wanted to extend their lives since they could first formulate a thought.

Posted by: Jason Pontin at July 30th, 2005 7:16 AM

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