This month's issue of Life Extension Magazine contains an interview with SENS Research Foundation cofounder Aubrey de Grey by Ben Best, a noted figure in the cryonics and longevity advocacy communities. The SENS Research Foundation runs a research program that aims to produce the foundation technologies to create human rejuvenation by means of repairing the low-level damage to cells and protein structures that causes aging.
As an aside, I should say that the Life Extension Foundation (LEF) and their Life Extension Magazine are a very mixed house: on the one hand the founders use some of the profits of their business to fund serious modern research, including improvements in cryonics, and through their magazine introduce a broader readership to some of the cutting edge work on the foundations of human rejuvenation presently taking place. On the other hand, this is all built upon the business of selling supplements, which is not something that can in any way greatly extend human life expectancy. The vast majority of the impact that the LEF has is to promote supplements as a way to extend life - and this simply isn't a viable path forward to the future. The world would be a far better place if everyone interested enough in long-term health to buy expensive supplements instead settled for a multivitamin and some fish oil and donated the rest of their supplement budget to medical research. The expectation value of doing that is somewhat greater than making a habit of ingesting anything you can purchase from a vitamin store.
So I have mixed feelings about these legacy organizations in the longevity advocacy community. Some are doing good by funding modern science and promoting SENS or similar research programs, but they also loudly propagate a great deal of what amounts to misinformation about what the average fellow can do, realistically, to impact the future of his aging process. At this point progress in new forms of medical science is the only thing that will significantly alter our future life spans: no combination of vitamins and supplements has been show to produce even a fraction of the benefits resulting from exercise and calorie restriction. But the existence of the LEF as an ongoing commercial concern depends upon denying this truth, vigorously and often.
The counterargument to this line of thinking is "so how much money have you donated to scientific research lately, Reason?" The answer to that question is "nowhere where as much as the Life Extension Foundation has." So who here is doing more good for whom?
But back to the interview, which I think you'll find is gratifyingly technical for a change, and covers some topics that haven't been touched on at all in past interviews - such as recent funding changes, opinions on mainstream research groups, and so forth:
LE: You recently inherited a large sum of money and chose to donate most of it to the SENS Foundation. Will you provide some details and explain your motives?
AdG: My mother died in May 2011 and I was her only child; the upshot is that I inherited roughly $16.5 million. Of that, I assigned $13 million to SENS (I won't bore you with the legal details, which were tedious in the extreme). It was pretty much a no-brainer for me: I've dedicated my life to this mission, and I dedicate all my time to it, so why not my money too? I retained enough to buy a nice house, but beyond that I have inexpensive tastes and I have no doubt that this is the best use of my wealth. It will accelerate research considerably, and also it will have indirect benefits in terms of helping us to put more resources into raising the profile of this work and garnering more support.
LE: Who are the other major donors to the SENS Foundation, and what proportion of the budget is covered by the money you donated?
AdG: My donation will be spent over a period of about five years, and it roughly doubles the budget we had previously, from $2 million annually to $4 million. The number one external donor remains our stalwart supporter Peter Thiel. Additionally, another internet entrepreneur, Jason Hope, has recently begun to contribute comparable sums.
LE: What will the SENS Foundation do when your donation money runs out?
AdG: It's hard to look ahead as far as five years, the projected duration of my donation, but we certainly have great confidence that our outreach efforts will bear fruit in that time. My hope is that five years from now we will be big enough that the expiry of my donation will go relatively unnoticed.
LE: What is advantageous and what is disadvantageous about the money spent on aging research by the National Institute on Aging (NIA, a branch of the US federal government's National Institutes of Health)?
AdG: It's pretty much all advantageous - just not nearly as advantageous as it could be. There is pitifully little money going into the search for interventions to postpone aging, and of what there is, pitifully little is focused on late-onset interventions.
LE: What do you think of the way the Ellison Medical Foundation spends money on aging research?
AdG: Exactly the same as for the NIA. The Ellison Foundation was set up with a remit to fund work that complemented the NIA, but I'm afraid to say that in practice it has merely supplemented it.
LE: How difficult would it be to eliminate lipofuscin (the cellular junk that particularly accumulates in neurons and heart muscle cells) compared to eliminating 7KC (an oxidized derivative of cholesterol that accumulates in atherosclerotic plaques) or A2E (a substance accumulating in the retina with age that causes macular degeneration and blindness) as a lysoSENS project? How much difference do you think elimination of lipofuscin would make in terms of rejuvenation?
AdG: This is a big question right now. We have a PhD student in our funded group at Rice University who is working on lipofuscin, but he is just starting. Lipofuscin is indeed harder, but what makes it harder is not the aging-versus-disease distinction but simply the nature of the substance. Lipofuscin is very heterogeneous in its molecular composition, and moreover it is mainly made of proteins, so it is hard to distinguish from material that we don't want to break down. I should note in passing that the material whose accumulation causes macular degeneration is often called lipofuscin but really should not be, because the only thing it has in common with bonafide lipofuscin is its subcellular location (the lysosome) and its fluorescence properties: its molecular composition is entirely different.
LE: In the 2011 report of the SENS Foundation, progress on mitoSENS (making copies of mitochondrial DNA in the nucleus to protect them from free-radicals generated by mitochondria) was restricted to 5 of the 13 protein-encoding mitochondrial genes. How confident are you that all 13 such genes can be copied into the nucleus in the foreseeable future? Are some of those genes more important than others, or are you simply going after the easier targets?
AdG: We're pretty confident. Some of the genes we've chosen to work on first are easy targets in the sense that other researchers have demonstrated some success with them already; other genes are chosen more because success would be high-impact, in that it would allow more clear-cut assays of efficacy. In the end, all 13 are equally important.
There's a lot more in that vein. Quite the number of people work with or for the SENS Research Foundation these days: it is at the center of a web of connections throughout the aging research community and related life science fields.
I should say that the large number of people who have criticized de Grey on various grounds in past years should all be eating their hats these days: I shouldn't have to say anything about just how admirable is his disposition of his own wealth. If de Grey didn't exist, we'd have had to invent him. Sometimes, rarely, it really is the case that one visionary arises to drag the rest of the world along into the future, kicking and screaming, long before the zeitgeist of the age would have produced a comparable figure in some other community. It is in many ways interesting to speculate on where we might be right now absent de Grey, or in a world in which he had chosen to continue to work in artificial intelligence rather than the life sciences, and I believe that the answer is that we'd probably still be waiting on a funded research program for radical life extension to emerge.
Today's nearest neighbors to the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) are either very recent and quite clearly inspired by it, such as the proposals put forward by some of SENS Research Foundation advisors and their allies, or are largely focused on strategies related to programmed aging, such as the materials of the Science for Life Extension Foundation and associated members of the Russian biogerontology community. In no case I'm aware of are these proposals funded to even the modest level that currently exists for SENS.
Further, it's clear that the activities of the SENS Research Foundation, and to a greater degree the Methuselah Foundation before it, have had an enormous positive effect over the past decade with respect to changing the culture of the research community. The aging research community of fifteen years past was one in which researchers could not openly talk about extending healthy human life span, or at least not if they wanted to retain their funding. The research community today is quite the opposite, and that goes a long way towards making it possible for competitors and allies for radical life extension programs to arise at all.