Electric Pulse Interview With Aubrey de Grey

Some novel questions for biomedical gerontologist and healthy life extension advocate Aubrey de Grey in this short blog interview at the Electric Pulse. It is interesting, but not entirely unexpected, that one has to break out of the mainstream media stockade to see unexplored lines of thought:

EP: There have been a lot of advances in the realm of cosmetics or so called cosmeceuticals. Partially this has been because of the relaxed approval process compared to traditional drugs. Do you believe, as age defying cosmeceuticals get more powerful, that these regulations will be tightened?

Aubrey de Grey: Hard to say. I don’t really see why they should, because there are no powerful groups with vested interests in making that change occur - but also, there’s only so powerful that cosmetics are likely ever to get against aging, because if people are crumbling on the inside the it gets progressively harder to patch up the outside.

EP: As a follow up, do you think that advanced, highly effective cosmetics could have the same effect on breaking the "pro-aging trance" that successful mouse rejuvenation would have?

Aubrey de Grey: No. I think cosmetics have their place in enhancing people’s self-image and quality of life, but they don’t fool the wearer whose joints are hurting and who can’t run up the stairs any more, and that won’t change.

As I've pointed out in the past, the massive "anti-aging" marketplace sometimes looks as though it could provide great benefits to the healthy life extension community - a group of enthusiastic people and their delivery and marketing networks, flush with money, just lacking any product that actually works. But in practice, it just doesn't work out that way. Merchants focused on making money from things that don't work will keep doing just that and no more. The people buying the products show little to no sign of crossover to support of real longevity science.

If there really was a significant spill-over of sentiment and support from consumers of "anti-aging" brands to meaningful, scientific anti-aging research - or even between different "anti-aging" brands in the marketplace - I don't think we'd be seeing quite the same sort of hostile confrontation between brand-holders and scientists as takes place today. More to the point, I suspect that volunteer organizations like the Methuselah Foundation would be having far less of an uphill struggle than has been the case to attain their present level of success, and scientists backing rapid progress towards working anti-aging therapies would not be struggling to raise large-scale funding and fight conservatism within their ranks.

In essence, if there was any benefit to be had from the millions of Revlon customers, any tendency for these enthusiastic purchasers of potions to stand up for Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence research or similar efforts to repair aging, we'd have seen the signs by now. The "anti-aging" marketplace is its own closed world, ultimately irrelevant to the road to a cure for aging.

My own thoughts on the matter are that people aren't stupid. They know these potions don't do anything other than paper over the cracks (on a good day), and they're paying for a chance of papering over the cracks. That's an entirely different proposition from extending healthy life span, or actually repairing the damage of aging through medicine. The majority of the world is still firmly set on the idea of aging to death as something set in stone, but they want to look as good as possible while doing it.


I posted a long response to this that I think did not send properly. Sorry if this is a double up.

I'll try to recapture my main points, the first of which is that I completely disagree with you and Aubrey on this topic.

The pro aging trance has as much to do with the belief that curing aging is impossible as it does with the belief that curing aging is not worth pursuing. It's a psychological defense mechanism. Eliminate the former false belief and the later will follow shortly after.

If genuine rejuvenation to a youthful appearance were actually achieved, presumably through the cellular restoration of the skin, it would change everything. The pro aging trance would be totally shattered, perhaps even more than it would be in the event of robust rejuvenation in mice. The implications would be immediately personal and would be explicitly apparent to anyone with eyes to see. Take a walk down the street and every person you pass over the age of 25, whether they adopt the therapies or not, becomes a billboard advertising the effectiveness of rejuvenation and the necessity for life extension, purely by virtue of their physical appearance. It is not n understatement to say that the social order would collapse.

It is also a mistake to think that merely because cosmetic hucksters don't share our interest in LE that progress in this area is not imminent. You are of course correct to point out that they are dissinterested though. In fact, the worse their products work the better for them, as the customer keeps on coming back. But then, we don't need their support or their money do we? Why would we want anything to do with their cynical charade? The point is not that an industry of frauds exists... but rather that there is a market for such an industry in the first place. People want this. To a canny investor who understands that, genuine facial rejuvenation is a goldmine. I have to believe such investors exist, and if they know what's good for them they will in fact sidestep the existing cosmetics industry altogether. Distance yourself from the con men, market yourself as their antithesis... and help to bring their era to a close. Did Florey team up with the county fair salesman to market penicillin? ...Of course not. So why ought the anti progress attitude of the cosmetics frauds have any baring on those pursuing the real deal?

On another note, forgetting about the propaganda war on behalf of LE for a moment, I actually think that cosmetic rejuvenation is its own medical imperative. Just as we do all we can to treat the symptoms of other diseases so we should attempt to treat the symptoms of aging. Worrying about looking older isn't just vanity. It is a perfectly reasonable response to a progressive, degenerative, disfiguring condition. Defeating the appearance of aging is a good in and of itself.

Posted by: Ben E at May 4th, 2008 6:03 AM

Regarding your comment “In essence, if there was any benefit to be had from the millions of Revlon customers, any tendency for these enthusiastic purchasers of potions to stand up for Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence research or similar efforts to repair aging, we'd have seen the signs by now. The "anti-aging" marketplace is its own closed world, ultimately irrelevant to the road to a cure for aging.“

Please could I direct your attention to the following recent article in the New Scientist?


“Last year, a group led by Christopher Griffiths, a dermatologist at the University of Manchester, UK, carried out what is thought to be the first ever rigorous independent test on an over-the-counter anti-ageing product. The team compared the performance of Protect and Perfect, manufactured by the health and beauty company Boots, with retinoic acid and a moisturiser control. The study was reported by the BBC TV Horizon programme and, more importantly, published in a peer-reviewed journal this March (British Journal of Dermatology, vol 158, p 472).

The researchers applied the three preparations to the sun-damaged skin of volunteers over 12 days, and took biopsies from the treated sites and from a control site. To the surprise of the investigators, the cosmetic proved almost as effective as retinoic acid in repairing sun-damaged skin. Even more striking was the buying frenzy that followed. Within an hour of opening, most Boots stores had sold out of Protect and Perfect.”

This suggests to me that consumers would love some decent quality scientific evidence to suggest that the products they want actually work.

Christopher Griffiths is now running a six month double blind clinical trial. The impact of this could change consumer expectations from the cosmetics industry and anti-aging marketplace in general.

Ultimately, sellers, consumers and the life extension community all want the same thing – products that work. Here, we are seeing some decent quality science being done within the anti-aging market place and consumers reacting positively to it.

Whilst it is easy to become enraged with the anti-aging market place, with this possible nascent shift in sentiment in the near future, there may be a significant opportunity for influencing both consumers and sellers and I would ask the more prominent members of the life extension community to be open to this and reach out to them at this time.

The cosmetics industry has an income of $290 billion and spends something like 2% on research and development. With some skillful diplomacy and direction, this kind of budget could buy a lot of high quality science.

Alistair Tweed

Posted by: Alistair Tweed at May 6th, 2008 2:45 AM

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