Life Without Ageing: Aubrey de Grey and Tom Kirkwood to Debate Longevity Science at the British Science Festival

The British Science Festival will be held in Newcastle a few weeks from now. One of the events has Aubrey de Grey of the SENS Research Foundation, advocate and coordinator for rejuvenation research, debating Tom Kirkwood, one of the leading figures in the mainstream faction of the aging research community who think that there isn't much hope for rapid progress to rejuvenation. Those researchers see the best available path forward as one of modestly slowing aging through replication of known metabolic or genetic alterations associated with natural variations in longevity, such as those involved in the response to calorie restriction - but even this will be a long time in realization, a slow grind towards incremental improvements.

I agree with the viewpoint that attempts to safely slow aging in humans will be very hard indeed. Success requires a much greater understanding of metabolism and aging than presently exists, and it's not unreasonable to suggest that decades and many billions of dollars lie between us and even the first prototype drugs to slightly slow aging. However, slowing aging by altering genes and metabolism is not the only approach that can be taken - indeed it's probably the worst of viable scientific approaches to extending healthy life. It's exceedingly costly, produces marginal results, and therapies that can slow ongoing aging are of little to no use for people who are already old and frail.

In this Kirkwood represents the old mainstream of standardized drug discovery and marginal, unambitious process in medicine. De Grey represents the disruptive future of medical technology, his SENS vision and ongoing research being one of a number of entirely new paradigms for health and aging that are winning over an increasing fraction of the research community. The times are changing, and every new wave of development is met by skepticism from those in the mature industries it will replace. We should aim for rejuvenation through periodic repair of cellular damage: it will like take no longer, will quite possibly be cheaper than trying alter ourselves to slow aging, and will be very beneficial for people who are already old when these therapies are introduced.

Life Without Ageing - Two Contrasting Visions Of An Ageing World

EVENT: Life Without Ageing - Two contrasting visions of an ageing world DATE: Monday 9th September TIME: 13.00 - 14.30 VENUE: Fine Art Building Lecture Theatre, Newcastle, UK

Is a cure for ageing within reach in our own lifetimes?

Biomedical gerontologist Dr Aubrey de Grey, Chief Science Officer of the SENS Research Foundation will be joining Professor Tom Kirkwood CBE, Associate Dean for Ageing at Newcastle University to debate a 'Life Without Ageing'. In this event, chaired by Dr Sir Tom Shakespeare, Aubrey de Grey will suggest that a "cure" for ageing is within reach in our own lifetimes, while Tom Kirkwood will argue that such a goal is not only unrealistic but distorts what should be the real research priorities of an ageing world.

Dr de Grey's research proposes that eliminating ageing as a cause of debilitation and death in mankind can be achieved within just a few decades through his proposed 'Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence'; a term coined by De Grey in his first book The Mitochondrial Free Radical Theory. Countering this is Professor Kirkwood, a former BBC Reith Lecturer, whose research is around healthy ageing and improving life in old age by looking at the prevention of age associated factors, such as frailty, disability and age related disease, and by helping to change society's attitudes towards ageing.

The tantalising idea of living forever is as old as humanity, but can modern science really hope to consign the ageing process to history? Life Without Ageing promises to be a fascinating insight into modern day ageing research and the opposing visions of an ageing world. At the end of the debate the floor will be opened, giving the audience opportunity to put questions to the speakers and take part in what should be a lively discussion.

If you take a careful look at the festival site page for the debate, you'll see that it's possible to submit questions for the speakers. If you intend to go in person, it looks like registration is required, but it's otherwise a free event.


The sheer stupidity of some academics is breathtaking. "Change society's attitude toward ageing". Yeah, it's really GOOD that your body is falling to pieces around you, it's just your attitude that's wrong!

Jeez Louise.

Posted by: Ian at August 19th, 2013 6:59 PM

I once asked a prominent gerontologist, in the context of a discussion of Aubrey de Grey, what he thought about radical life extension generally. He told me that it's like sending a man to Pluto, in that it is so distant and impractical as to not be worth discussing. I will be forever grateful to him. This analogy is a perfect encapsulation of the fallacy of the fatalistic conservatives' refusal to consider life extension as the proper goal of aging research.

Consider that with our current level of knowledge, we can say *with certainty* that a manned mission to Pluto is metaphysically possible--i.e. the laws of physics and biology permit it, and its actualization is merely a problem of practical engineering and technology. The answer to the question of whether we *can* do it does not depend on the nature of undiscovered physical laws; it is a settled question. The only question open is that of timescale--not *can* we, but *when* will we solve the technical hurdles of implementation.

Now note that, at present, there is simply no pressing reason for anyone to actually go to Pluto. There is no reason to even suspect that any great value is there to be found by a human. At most, satisfying the scientific curiosity of a few academics to look around the place might be achieved by sending a robot or two with a camera. Therefore, given the very large barrier of cost and technical difficulty involved in getting to Pluto, it seems plausible to argue that focusing our efforts in discussion, in thought, and in action on such a goal is indeed pointless. QED.

In reality, however, for this analogy to be a valid parallel to the case of life extension we'd have to imagine, not that Pluto is a barren rock not worth visiting, but that we discovered tomorrow that Pluto is the actual site of the Fountain of Youth.

In choosing the proper direction and goal of science, or of any long-range technological endeavor, one does not rationally consider only the cost or difficulty of the thing in a vacuum, divorced from any consideration of the value to be attained. Rather, the value of the goal is the means--the standard--by which the acceptable cost and difficulty is measured.

In a rational culture, were we to discover that some incredible value of historic proportions, like a cure for all disease or the secret to inexhaustible and near-free energy from the ether, lay ready for the taking on Pluto, the overwhelming response would be to exert every possible effort toward its attainment. World leaders would declare the building of a shuttle to Pluto the problem of our time. Trillions of dollars would pour, through the voluntary choices of individuals seeking to improve their lives, into the project. And the scientists and engineers involved would not only be conscious of the fact that we know the journey to be ultimately possible, they would be shouting said fact from the rooftops, as proof of the value of their work and the strongest inducement for public support and greater investment in the effort to realize their incalculably important goal as quickly as humanly possible.

They certainly would not, in reason, engage in a systematic campaign to deny the existence of Pluto, nor would they declare that while it might be there, it is irrelevant to human life, and therefore scientists should not consider it or speak of it, and all our spacefaring goals should be limited to the performance of costly publicity stunts in near-Earth orbit at public expense.

We do not abandon the attempt to cure cancer because it is hard. And while it may be sensible for working scientists and doctors to maintain, as a matter of *short-term* practical necessity in a specific context, that the immediate goal of their work on some particularly intractable form of cancer is not to cure it outright but merely to turn the disease into a manageable chronic condition--it does not follow that science as such should practice myopia on principle, and that anyone brazen enough to speak of curing all cancer as an ultimate goal is a dangerous utopian fantasist. It does not follow that a scientific mind should never dare to integrate the facts of physiology with the course and direction of science in order to see what is possible in reality beyond the immediate moment. A demand for the entire field of cancer research to restrict its vision and its goals only to the most modest of palliative gestures, or at most to the achievement of a few extra days of tortured existence for the terminal, would be a grotesquely anti-scientific, stultifying assault on human progress and human values.

Yet this is the model we are told to adopt for gerontology. And this despite the fact that aging is the cause of immeasurably greater suffering and destruction than cancer, affecting every individual in existence, and despite the fact that the scientific case for the eventual achievability of human life extension is clear. The only question is *when*. If we adopt the attitude of the gero-conservatives, the answer will very likely be "too far away." Aging research must proceed with an explicit understanding of the long-range values and ultimate ends that are demonstrably possible in reality, and with an awareness of the factually-grounded moral principles that make life-extension not only an eminently proper and desirable value, but in fact the greatest potential value in the history of science.

Posted by: Adam Spong at August 25th, 2013 4:17 PM

Well it was indeed an interesting debate, Professor Kirkwood pulled no punches in his criticism of Aubrey de Grey's research and theories. Academics without dualling pistols! Professor Kirkwood was interviewed following morning on BbC Radio Newcastle where he repeated his criticisms.

Posted by: Yvonne at September 11th, 2013 5:08 AM

Is this debate available anywhere? It would be a shame if it were just lost to the ether.

Posted by: Michael at September 17th, 2013 3:10 AM

Post a comment; thoughtful, considered opinions are valued. New comments can be edited for a few minutes following submission. Comments incorporating ad hominem attacks, advertising, and other forms of inappropriate behavior are likely to be deleted.

Note that there is a comment feed for those who like to keep up with conversations.