Aubrey de Grey to Debate Professor Colin Blakemore

Oxford University in the UK has a long tradition of formal public debating, and this week the Oxford University Scientific Society will be hosting a debate on longevity science between Aubrey de Grey of the SENS Foundation and Colin Blakemore former head of the Medical Research Council. This will be the first time that a fellow of the British biomedical establishment has risen to the challenge of describing publicly, in a forum where he can be challenged, why intervention against aging is not in fact medicine's most pressing priority - an area of debate in which the UK lags behind the US: "Oxford University Scientific Society is hosting a debate on Wednesday, 25th April, 2012. The debate will begin at 7pm local time (11am Pacific, 2pm Eastern) in the University of Oxford's Sheldonian Theatre; doors open 45 minutes earlier. Dr. Aubrey de Grey will propose the motion 'This house wants to defeat ageing entirely' and Professor Colin Blakemore will be opposing. The debate will be chaired and moderated by Professor Sir Richard Peto. This debate will address whether it is feasible and appropriate to consider ageing as a target of decisive medical intervention, raising the possibility of substantial extension of human lifespan. Aubrey de Grey is currently Chief Science Officer of SENS Foundation, a biomedical research charity that aims to develop, promote, and ensure widespread access to rejuvenation biotechnologies that address the diseases and disabilities of ageing. SENS Foundation aims to bring ageing under comprehensive medical control. Its research agenda consists of the application of regenerative medicine to ageing - not merely slowing the ageing clock, but resetting it to early adulthood. Colin Blakemore is Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Oxford Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences. He is an expert in vision, development of the brain and neurodegenerative disease. He is active in communication of science and is president and adviser to several charities concerned with brain disorders. Prof. Blakemore was formerly Chief Executive of the Medical Research Council, the UK's largest public funder of biomedical research."



Debate, why even consider a debate on improving the quality of our lives. We are already working on stem cell therapy,tissue engineering, etc. In my view there needs to be a much larger public awareness of how molecular regenerative medicine can improve everyone's life. We all ready prolonging life with many types of treatments and surgeries, why not attempt to stop ageing completely.

Posted by: Joseph Yaskus at April 25th, 2012 1:28 PM

I actually went to this debate, and as a result I am no longer an anti-aging activist. Professor Colin Blakemore convinced me that even if we were to understand the causes of aging, which we are not, it would still be centuries away from doing anything about it. It is desirable, but not feasible. 80% of the audience voted against the motion, too.

Posted by: HR at April 25th, 2012 3:54 PM

@HR: The recording doesn't seem to be posted yet, so I can't know Professor Blakemore's full argument however I don't see the necessity for first understanding exactly which causes contribute to aging significantly or the precise magnitude of each contribution. The timeline for development of anti-aging therapy can be condensed by accepting uncertainty and working to remedy all the feasible contributors, which are not so numerous that we could expect more than one or two "misses."

Each strand of the SENS program is under active research and I haven't come across any argument which would lead me to believe that these ideas are infeasible to the extent that they would require technology centuries away.

Owing to the prejudicial attitudes that surround this topic, I'll certainly weigh the arguments myself when I have the opportunity rather than relying on an audience popularity contest.

Posted by: Jose at April 25th, 2012 7:09 PM

A problem I see is that many people don't get ill until they reach a certain age, where most of their passion and determination is gone. They don't even consider that it is aging, which causes all their problems. In addition to this it is very hard for the individual person to actually take responsibility for his/her health. Rapamycin and most other drugs need a prescription, which you won't get, while at the same time there is little competition and there are high market entry barriers, so prices are high and quality is somewhat "bad". In my eyes, personal and economic freedom are the only things, that can speed up the way for anti-aging and anti-suffering for us humans.

Posted by: Waverunner at April 25th, 2012 11:46 PM

It was definitely the lack of specificity from Aubrey that contributed to losing the debate. He was asked directly how aging could be slowed and/or reversed, and didn't come out with a specific enough answer. One of Blakemore's more convincing arguments was that Huntington's disease is well understood and theoretically very simple to fix, but it still cannot be done, 20 years after the discovery of the gene. He then went on to say that, if 20 years after fully understanding this it cannot be fixed, then something as complex as aging, which we do not understand, will take far longer - certainly out of the 25 year time frame in which Aubrey says we have a 50/50 chance of defeating it entirely. It will be very interesting to hear your reaction once you watch the video.

Posted by: HR at April 26th, 2012 1:22 AM

"It was definitely the lack of specificity from Aubrey that contributed to losing the debate."

One must understand the essential asymmetry of the two debate postures. One side can insinuate the improbability or impracticality of anti-aging without recourse to specifics, but only a defence in detail could be convincing. If the counter-party to the anti-aging position throws out objections faster than they could ever be answered in a live debate format, then the anti-aging advocate will suffer from "lack of specificity" perforce, regardless of intrinsic merit. Truth does not depend upon pithiness.

"He was asked directly how aging could be slowed and/or reversed, and didn't come out with a specific enough answer."

How specific is specific enough? We are talking about an incipient research program, not something that's ready for the clinic. If all the specifics could be given exactly then the SENS program would have already been achieved.

"One of Blakemore's more convincing arguments was that Huntington's disease is well understood and theoretically very simple to fix, but it still cannot be done, 20 years after the discovery of the gene."

Gene delivery has turned out to be fraught. Fortunately it's a single engineering problem, the solution of which can be applied to a variety of disease conditions. There is very active research on this topic, and clinical application would be nearer if not for regulatory obstacles.

"He then went on to say that, if 20 years after fully understanding this it cannot be fixed, then something as complex as aging, which we do not understand, will take far longer - certainly out of the 25 year time frame in which Aubrey says we have a 50/50 chance of defeating it entirely. It will be very interesting to hear your reaction once you watch the video."

Complete understanding of aging may well be intractable. Some biochemical and gene regulatory networks are so complicated that I doubt the possibility, even in theory, for humans to comprehend them fully. When things mutually interact, a full understanding requires simultaneous appreciation of all the interacting things, but if this set is too large it may not fit in the working memory of even the most able human investigator. Elusive holistic understanding may be necessary to formulate well-targeted hypotheses and guide scientific investigation into the balance of ultimate causes. This may be a problem that is actually impossible without advanced artificial intelligence.

In the interim, we can try our best to answer critical engineering problems including the gene-delivery problem. If we enhance our tool-box enough, trial and error becomes a viable alternative. Brute force is much easier to apply with a crowbar than without. In part, Prof. Blakemore's argument seems to depend on "if this is taking more than twenty years, then this new program for which the solution is overlapping will also take at least that long." Hopefully the dubious implicit analogy is apparent.

Posted by: Jose at April 26th, 2012 9:51 AM

Jose I couldn't agree more. Wow, HR you threw in the towel very quickly there did you not? It seems Blakemore has no grip on the concept of accelerating change in the technological landscape. SENS which to the best of my knowledge is bioengineering isn't going develop therapies in isolation, all other fields will yield innovations that will be invaluable to SENS. Jose rightly mentioned AI which is something being pursued for the very purpose of extending life by Ben Goertzel to name one. I'm pursuing a career in AI too for the same reason. The human condition barring social catastrophe will yield completely to science.

Posted by: Louis Burke at April 26th, 2012 12:50 PM

Jose, it wasn't like that at all. You need to watch the debate for yourself really, rather than relying on my snippets of information from it. Please watch it with an open mind and then come to a conclusion. The majority of the audience, 80 percent, voted against Aubrey de Grey. Professor Blakemore is a real scientist and has headed the UK's version of the NIH - he knows these things well. I think Aubrey de Grey is rather cruelly trying to sell us something he knows to be false.

Professor Blakemore at one stage did raise Ray Kurzweil's speculative theories, showing that he understands them, and did in fact dismiss them. A man of his knowledge and experience would be aware of accelerating returns, but does not see evidence of their beneficial impact in the medical realm. In fact, he stated that lifespan has increased over the past 20-30 years due to people stopping smoking, not any medical improvement. These are the facts of the world and, although it has been hard for me, I have come to the conclusion that I and all my family and friends will die. Accept your own mortality and move on from this pseudoscience.

Posted by: HR at April 27th, 2012 11:32 AM

What a smashing success for Aubrey and the pro-life extension community! If 20% voted in favor of defeating aging entirely, that is probably a TWENTY-FOLD increase as compared to a decade ago. Thanks to the hard work by SENS, Fight-Aging, Longecity, etc. we are now much closer to convincing a critical mass that life extension and rejuvenation are a "good" thing pursue.

Posted by: Mind at April 28th, 2012 3:50 AM

@HR: Your most recent reply seems to be founded upon according Prof. Blakemore preternatural reliability because of his former position as a political appointee. If we dutifully examine the policy output generated by such appointees as a whole, we see nothing to justify credence. They have coercively forced upon society a variety of immoral, irrational, inexplicable, incomprehensible and otherwise ridiculous policies that if anything impugn what credibility they as a class might enjoy from other individual qualifications.

Posted by: Jose at April 28th, 2012 12:20 PM

To clarify some misinformation posted in this page by HR:

35% voted for Blakemore; 20% voted for Aubrey,; 45% were undecided. Saying 80% voted against Aubrey is a falsity.

Posted by: BP at April 29th, 2012 2:26 PM

First, I would point out to a previous poster that while there *was* a clear majority of votes against Aubrey it was nowhere near 80% of the audience. I'm not sure what gave you that idea, since you say you were there.

I thought Prof. Blakemore raised good points about the difficulty of the science behind developing biomedical interventions. I've always thought Aubrey is too optimistic about his timeframe for developing genuinely useful antiaging medicines. In Aubrey's defense, many people seem to think he is saying that aging will be abolished entirely in 25 years. He has never claimed that. He is saying he thinks there is an even (~50%) chance that in 25 years or so, medicine will have advanced to the point that for every year we get older, medicine will be able to add *another* year onto our life expectancy. That is a MUCH more modest claim. In that scenario, we would still be accumulating all sorts of aging damage - we just wouldn't be getting any closer to dying from it (Aubrey's term for this point is "longevity escape velocity" - Google it if you didn't understand my necessarily short explanation). Even with that concession, though, I agree with Blakemore that Aubrey is too optimistic about his timeframe for developing effective anti-aging treatments.

I think Aubrey expects wide public support of antiaging medicine to emerge, which would of course bring more funding and speed up progress. While aging research *is* rapidly becoming more important to more people, it's in no way competitive with other areas of medical research yet. So the large amounts of research funding that would let us develop useful antiaging medical technologies are probably a long way off.

With that said, as far as the *desirability* (as opposed to feasibility) of curing aging goes, saying that we should let everyone we know get old, suffer, and die rather than keeping them healthy for as long as possible seems pretty heartless to me. Blakemore argued that retirement ages would be a problem if longer lifespans become possible, but should we really let everyone we know and love get old and die because we're too lazy to change the retirement laws? Likewise with overpopulation; it may (MAY - we don't even know for sure) be a problem way down the road, but arguing that we should let people die of old age to avoid overpopulation seems to me about as reasonable as arguing that we should start more wars to keep the population down. I think Aubrey is absolutely right in arguing that trying to "cure" aging is desirable; unfortunately, without widespread public support it will probably be a very long time coming.

On the bright side, as a previous poster has pointed out, FAR more people favor antiaging research now than they did even a few years ago. Perhaps that trend will continue until it is a real priority. I'd like to hope so. After all, no one wants to watch their loved ones - or themselves - deteriorate and die.

Posted by: Blaine at April 29th, 2012 3:25 PM

BP, you have been exposed as a liar - the debate had no 'undecided' option, as evidenced by the video of it that was recently uploaded by Reason. Were you even there? I suggest you watch it with an open mind.

Posted by: Leon at May 1st, 2012 5:07 AM

I counted all of the hand-raisers in the video; there were about 79 yeas and 119 nays. I didn't count the undecided, but there were definitely some of those as well. Clearly, HR and Leon are wrong about the vote, and BP was correct about the ratio of 2 yeas for every 3 nays.

Posted by: Florin Clapa at May 26th, 2012 9:02 PM
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