Technology Review Announces SENS Challenge

The frustration of Jason Pontin, editor of the MIT Technology Review, over the inexplicable reluctance of A-list bioscientists to deliver a good scientific critique of Aubrey de Grey's Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) has born fruit. From Pontin's latest post, we have the announcement of the SENS Challenge:

The most widely read story in Technology Review in 2005 was "Do You Want to Live Forever?," a profile of Dr. Aubrey de Grey, a British theoretical biologist and computer scientist at the University of Cambridge's Department of Genetics.

De Grey believes that aging, like a disease, can in principle be treated and defeated. He proposes approaching aging as a problem in engineering through something he calls "Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence." SENS claims to identify the 7 causes of human aging and describes how each cause might be circumvented. De Grey is also the guiding genius behind The Methuselah Foundation, an organization which offers monetary awards to biologists who make significant advances towards reversing aging in mice.


In my reply to our readers, whilst conceding nothing, I promised to find a working biogerontologist who would take on de Grey's ideas. But while a number of biologists have criticized SENS to me privately, none have been willing to do so in public.

This silence is puzzling (de Grey, less charitably, calls it "catatonia"). If de Grey is so wrong, why won't any biogerontologists say why he is wrong? If he is totally nuts, it shouldn't be so hard to explain the faults in his science, surely?

One possible explanation for the silence of biogerontologists is that criticizing SENS would require time and effort - and that working scientists are too busy to waste time on something so silly. Another explanation (one obviously preferred by de Grey) is that biogerontologists reject SENS out of hand without examining its details.

Technology Review thinks it would be useful to determine which of the two explanations is correct. If SENS has some validity, then we should take it seriously. Because if we can significantly extend healthy life, we will have to ask - should we?

Regardless of which explanation is correct, biogerontologists apparently need an incentive to consider SENS. To that end, Technology Review is announcing a prize for any molecular biologist working in the field of aging who is willing to take up the challenge: submit an intellectually serious argument that SENS is so wrong that it is unworthy of learned debate, and you will be paid $20,000 if it convinces independent referees. In the case that even $20,000 is insufficient to motivate the relevant experts, we also invite contributions to the fund; anyone wishing to pledge should contact me.

Pontin is not pro-life-extension, needless to say - and, sadly, still appears to be willing to describe Aubrey de Grey as "nuts." I don't agree with a number of his opinions on the workings and nature of science, even if he clearly understands where he should be going with respect to the circulation of his magazine. However, if the Technology Review staff pull this off, or even generate significant additional publicity for serious attempts to greatly extend the healthy human life span, I might just be willing to forgive some of their past transgressions.

Go and read the full post for the terms of the SENS Challenge. You might also find Aubrey de Grey's "The Curious Case of the Catatonic Biogerontologists" to be well worth reading in the present context.


This is the best news I've heard in many months.

Posted by: Kip Werking at July 28th, 2005 8:22 PM

Jason Pontin appears to be taking the Technology Review down the same path as Scientific American. A ideologically driven sheet that contains some science, intermixed with a political agenda.

This is sad. In the past, TR has been quite good at covering leading edge technologies in a manner that is easily readable.

On the otherhand, Scientific American used to be really good as well, in the 1970's.

Oh, well.

Posted by: Kurt at July 29th, 2005 1:57 PM

I have no political agenda. Life extension is obviously a very important biotechnological subject. And one that is appropriate for TR to cover.

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 would possibly 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 7:19 AM

There is more than a whiff of the authoritarian mentality in Mr. Pontin's Point #1. While he is quite right that extending human lifespan by, say 20-30 years, would have all sorts of curious effects, he can't state with any certainty what those would be.

Just as a thought exercise, I'd ask anyone who takes this line of reasoning to tell me how anti-aging treatments would be different from insulin injections for diabetics. This simple treatment extends the lives of millions by decades. What is "normal life expectancy?" We are surrounded by people in their 30s and 40s who would, if left to nature, be dead already.

I guess the question I'd ask in the end is, "who do you think you are to have the right to decide what is a sufficient lifespan for me?"

Now, whether de Grey is nuts, I have no idea. In historical terms it would be a safe bet to say yes, but history always repeats itself until it doesn't.


Posted by: the snob at July 31st, 2005 8:30 AM

The third explanation which Kurt above noticed and which has become fairly obvious to those of us not in the thrall of the PC police is that science has sacrificed itself on the altar of liberal politics.

Here an article in the June 2004 issue of Science which perpetuates the myth of Islamic mathematics and which is thoroughly debunked by Jonathan David Carson, in his article Hyping Islam's role in the History of Science printed The American Thinker.

There's more on this subject in the Winter 2001 ed. of On Wisconsin followed up by a rebuttal that corroborates Carson in a well-documented letter printed in the Magazine's Summer 2002 ed.

It's unthinkable that the faculty in the department of mathematics at the University of Wisconsin in Madison aren't fully aware of the inaccuracies in an article appearing in the university magazine. That this article wasn't vetted through their own academic departments shows that it's not an article about mathematics, but an article about wishing will make if so.

Posted by: erp at July 31st, 2005 9:24 AM

But are gerontologists really in any position to criticize others' ideas for life extension? One of the interesting things about the Biblical "three score years and ten" is that it IS Biblical, i.e. dating from 'way back. The other thing is, it isn't really 'three score and ten', it's 'three score and ten or four score'.

So even if the editors of the King James Bible made up Psalms 90:10 on the spot, the fact is that in 1611, long before modern medicine evolved, a committee of very smart men who certainly knew how long people lived were comfortable saying the average age at which death from old age happened was around 75... right about where it is now.

Modern medicine definitely prevents premature death; it's less clear that it has moved 'the wall' much, if at all.

Posted by: PersonFromPorlock at July 31st, 2005 9:26 AM

Why didn't the links show?

Posted by: erp at July 31st, 2005 9:32 AM

This sounds like empty posturing. If you want to get a useful critique, just commission an article. Setting the bar at proving "SENS is so wrong that it is unworthy of learned debate" to an "independent" panel chosen by the person who just set the bar that high... Any expert with an ounce of sense wouldn't touch that offer with a ten foot pole.

Posted by: Zach at July 31st, 2005 10:18 AM

Zach - TR DID commission an article. It was nearly ready for publication when the author backed out. I give TR full marks for going the extra mile.

Posted by: Dave at July 31st, 2005 10:32 AM

The following is typical of current PC groupthought, from an AP article on 2-14-05, "Ray Kurzweil Aims to Live Forever":

"Lee Silver, a Princeton biologist, said he'd love to believe in the future as Kurzweil sees it, but the problem is, humans are involved.

"The instinct to preserve individuality, and to gain advantage for yourself and children, would survive any breakthrough into biological immortality -- which Silver doesn't think is possible. The gap between the haves and have-nots would widen and Kurzweil's vision of a united humanity would become ever more elusive, he said."

Leftist ideology trumps the desire to live longer. Progress is bad because it falls unevenly. Living longer is bad because smarter people would have more time to oustrip dumber people. Even have-nots who live in indefinite youth and have every conceivable material and medical benefit we can imagine today would have less than the always-relatively-defined haves.

Their ideology is as extreme as the jihadists, but arguably more destructive, since they teach at Princeton, edit (anti-)technology magazines at MIT, etc. And they're everywhere, fighting progress under the rubric of "progressive," hating humanity under the rubric of "humanist," and conserving the past against the future as "liberals."

Posted by: Foolish Mortal at July 31st, 2005 11:17 AM

There is an amazing tendency toward groupthink in the medical community. It wasn't that long ago that most of them believed cancer was caused by virii. Even on things that should be widely understood and accepted today, like glucose metabolism, a lot of people are stuck in the thinking of two decades ago.

Don't expect a lot of support from the mainstream. This field of study is something that will have to be built under the weight of constant criticism and even ridicule.

Posted by: TallDave at July 31st, 2005 1:42 PM

I really don't understand the worry that a non-agenarian future might not be a world one would like to live in.

It won't be perfect because it will have humans in it. Soooo?

It will have flaws and problems that we don't anticipate right now. True. Like the next year won't have those anyways. Thats what creativity is for. New problem, new solution which often generates a new problem...its a never ending cycle.

I wonder if some people are searching for the Perfect Utopia where they never have to lift a finger ever again to attain Perfect Justice.

Well, I've got news for those people, according to Scripture, even God worked, and then on the seventh day the KJV tells us, He rested.

Posted by: Eric R. Ashley at July 31st, 2005 10:05 PM

Why does all assumptions of life extension assume biological? Not that I say that it is possible but if 'alive' is in fact an electrical phenomomon then could it not be created and or stored by other mans? And if that is possible then would it not be possible some time in the future to just upload yourself onto a electrical representation?

Posted by: johnM at August 1st, 2005 2:45 PM

Earlier, Pontin wrote:
"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.'"

The body resists DNA damage by conserving long-lived cellular lineages. So, a likely answer is to use a similar mechanism. Seed the body with vetted, possibly improved per DeGrey, homologous cell lineages that are immune to an ablation agent. Then gently ablate the other cells in the body.

Stem cell magic might make this easier, but using vetted differentiated cell lines might work.

This is very like the leukaemia cure, so we can even extrapolate the patient's experience a bit. It might take several years, and be spectacularly uncomfortable, but the damaged lineages would be removed until only negligible amounts of nonvetted lineages were present.

Posted by: Ray Van De Walker at August 9th, 2005 5:40 PM

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