A Question and Answer Session with Aubrey de Grey

Over at h+ Magazine you'll find a question and answer session with Aubrey de Grey that covers some old ground and some new ground. The SENS Foundation, which de Grey cofounded, is presently deploying a modest million-dollar yearly budget to work on the biotechnologies needed to repair the cellular and molecular damage that causes aging. A great deal of that budget presently goes towards the first of the Foundation's programs, an effort focused on using bacterial enzymes to break down harmful waste chemicals that build up in our cells and contribute to a range of age-related diseases and degenerations.

I should mention that SENS Foundation funding is due entirely to philanthropic donations - including those of a few high net worth individuals - and I know that many of the readers here are long-standing supporters dating back to the years when the SENS Foundation's work was a program of the Methuselah Foundation. I find it very gratifying to see that so much has been made of the early efforts, when it was a matter of a few dollars given at time. I would hope that the rest of you feel the same way.

The SENS Foundation will also be hosting the forthcoming SENS5 conference in Cambridge at the end of August - there's a lot going on at the moment. But back to the h+ Magazine piece:

H+: SENS describes a whole battery of medical treatments that could theoretically defeat the aging process. These treatments range from relatively simple ones like injecting people with enzymes that can break down tough wastes inside of cells, to highly advanced ones like genetically altering trillions of somatic cells in full grown adults. Considering the differential technical challenges, what SENS therapies will most likely become available first, and which will be developed last?

AdG: Some of them are already pretty close: probably the closest is in fact not the enzyme therapy you mention, but the use of vaccines to eliminate extracellular aggregates (especially amyloid). But when we consider the others, actually I wouldn't like to make the call, because the hardest ones are the ones that the SENS Foundation and I are prioritizing in terms of the early research. In other words, we're hoping that they will start to catch up with the easier ones. I suspect that the challenge of genetically modifying a high proportion of cells by somatic gene therapy will have been largely solved before we complete the development of all the genes that we want to introduce.


H+: Are you worried that a single company or government might obtain the secrets to longevity first and then use its monopoly on the science to hold the human race hostage forever (or even for just a long period of time)?

AdG: There's no chance whatever of this scenario, because the defeat of aging will depend on the simultaneous application of a lot of different interventions, all of which will first have been developed in the laboratory rather than in humans.

There's a lot more in that vein, so read the whole thing. The point on gene therapy in the quote above is an interesting and important one. A great many very promising demonstrations in the laboratory depend upon gene therapy in one form or another - take the method of largely preventing atherosclerosis I pointed out earlier today for example. If we want to see these lines of research become more than simply interesting technology demonstrations then selective, tissue-specific gene therapy for humans must become routine and safe.

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