Ben Best Interviews Aubrey de Grey

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:

Interview with Aubrey de Grey, PhD

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.


He's certainly an inspirational figure. Good luck to him for all our sakes.

Posted by: Ian at July 17th, 2013 6:48 PM

LE: For which of your SENS strategies would success achieve the most additional healthy years?

AdG: No one strategy would achieve very much on its own - certainly not as much as ten years, probably not even five.

The above is very disappointing. I Always presumed SENS would come in pieces - one piece say in 20 years that adds 10-15 year to human life span, then maybe another piece every 10-15 years after that until in maybe 100 years it will all be put together with one set of procedures that halts the human aging process. And that I (age 43)would have a chance to get the first 3 pieces and they would enable me to live long enough to get all the pieces that made up SENS.

But this interview suggests that all pieces have to fall in to place pretty much together to have any hope of adding more than 5-10 years of life. I know money money money will help - but to go from A-Z in say the next 40 years to be of any use to me seems wildly optimistic if not completely impossible.

Posted by: Geoff at July 18th, 2013 10:49 AM


Bear in mind perhaps that he said "no one strategy" would give more than ten years benefit, leaving open the possibility that combinations of them that are still less than all would yield more than ten years. This would be very hard to predict. The synergies between different interventions could produce a greater combined impact, or it could be that leaving out even one path of SENS would leave that type of damage to cut off the lifespan not far beyond its present value.

Fortunately, research is capable of substantial parallelism. Even more fortunately, the success of one SENS intervention would provoke immense interest in pushing forward the others. This gives rise to a difficult question of strategy in that one wonders whether it is best to help along the projects that seem to have the furthest to go (for obvious reasons) or the one that seems closest to the most dramatic fruition (to drive interest in and demand for results on the others).

I think that it's generally true that a workable but incomplete implementation of all the SENS strategies would be much better than more complete success with any one of them in terms of producing longevity escape velocity.

Posted by: José at July 21st, 2013 9:43 PM

The lead article expressing opinions about the Life Extension Foundation is false and misleading.

The article urges readers to spend their money on a multiple vitamin and fish oil and put the rest of their supplement funds into serious medical research, arguing that no supplement can offer the results obtained from exercise and calorie restriction. The gist of this statement is that supplements are of little health value, only medical research is, and Life Extension Foundation is primarily interested in furthering its own profits by selling rather useless supplements that don't offer "a viable path for the future" in terms of longevity.

First of all, it is not true that supplements have no longevity benefit. Every one of Life Extension's articles have something to do with slowing the aging process and are followed by between 20-120 references from medical literature supporting whatever is in the article. Every article has something to do with life extension, whether it is methylation, glycation, oxidation, reducing brain aging. Life Extension was the first to introduce anti-oxidants in 1986, I believe it was, and they have been first on the scene with most of what is now accepted as healthy anti-aging supplementation. In short, the research is vast in support of the anti-aging benefits of supplements and Life Extension has consistently been ahead of everyone else with the news--always documented with scientific research.

So, there is no dichotomy between supplement information from reputable sources such as Life Extension Foundation and medicine in terms of research. These sources are backed by medical research.

It is not true that calorie restriction has anti-aging benefits for everyone. Some research shows that some people just plain get sick on it. There are trade-offs to calorie restriction. Some people who are very active will not have the energy to be as active, for example. I believe there is some indication that sperm count in men goes down as well. In other words, nature is whispering, "If you want to live longer, you have to trade your life for that of your would-be progeny."

Supplements have different benefits from exercise; both are necessary for optimal results. In fact, supplements are necessary for optimal exercise. I have trained as a body builder for over half a century. I can tell you that I could not lift what I do without supplements. I used to train nine hours a day six days a week. Impossible without supplements.

As for not contributing to longevity, I can also say no one has ever guessed my age and it is because of supplements and exercise, not calorie restriction or advanced medical research.

I am not gainsaying new forms of medical science as being a source of anti-aging. To the contrary. I was a member of the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine. In the mid-1990s I attended a seminar in which researchers attended from around the world. What I heard was this: If a person age 40 were to take advantage of medical technologies available at that time (but not in clinics as yet), that person could live to 150 and not age past 40. If his or her child would be 40, that person could expect to live to 300 years old not aging past 40!

Posted by: David Dressler, BA, RMT at July 21st, 2013 10:26 PM

I am 100% behind Aubrey. There are various routes being pursued that will eventually achieve the goal of radical life extension. Personally I am very confident that Aubrey de Grey's “Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence “ project- or SENS for short - is pretty much on the right track and will ultimately yield significant results. Aubrey's theory which goes back well over 10 years that if we intervened and removed some of the damage and garbage from the body we would make a person biologically younger and that this could then be repeated at intervals of say 20/25 years each time taking advantage of the medical progress made over the period since the previous treatment from where I stand this certainly makes sense because it avoids the need to understand exactly what causes aging and offers a shortcut to life extension until we do. The fact Aubrey is prepared to put the majority of his own fortune into this shows both a high level of confidence and an intense desire to help reduce the burden of suffering which aging causes. We must never forget its not all about living forever it's about remaining productive and contributing to society and if the side benefit of reducing the infirmity that results from old age is a longer life that is a great bonus. I donate to SENS I hope many others do the same and give to this worthy cause that will help end a problem that afflicts everyone.

Posted by: Dr John Andersen at July 23rd, 2013 1:12 PM

Aubrey de Grey, Feb 2013:

"We think we have a fighting chance of keeping people so healthy that their risk of death each year is the same - however old they were, how ever long ago they were born - as it was when they were in their 20s. And that is very low indeed."

Posted by: Ellen at November 5th, 2013 3:08 PM

The main problem is that people don't think it's a good idea to cure ageing.
When you mention it, the reactions vary from illogical to callous. We need to do more to convince people of the need to cure ageing and I'm happy to see that we are now talking about healthspan more than lifespan. Additionally the focus needs to include the rising cost of healthcare and how SENS can help alleviate these costs.

Posted by: Bob McGrath at June 10th, 2014 8:21 AM

To the nay-sayers to my comments about Life Extension Foundation,the anti-aging benefits of supplements, etc. that I made a little over a year ago, you may be interested in knowing that Aubrey de Grey, PhD is now on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Life Extension Foundation.

Posted by: David Dressler, BA, RMT at October 10th, 2014 1:20 AM
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