Gathering support for any cause in medical research is a slow process of bootstrapping. This is just as much the case for research into extending human life as for any other form of medical technology. Treatments and capabilities presently taken for granted were all bootstrapped at some point in the past, and the pioneers all had to climb the cliffs of skepticism and inertia. No matter how beneficial, new ideas and technologies are resisted and ignored at first. People don't like change.
Funds raised is one way to measure support for research, and another is the amount of time and energy people put into writing on the topic. In both cases SENS rejuvenation research - and even the broader and less promising efforts to work on enhancing human longevity - has a long way to go to reach the enthusiastic levels of support enjoyed by the stem cell or cancer research communities. Rejuvenation research will ultimately have to rise to those heights to achieve clinical application and widespread availability of treatments, but it is quite possible that demonstrations of rejuvenation in mice will precede that point by decades.
So attention, discussion, and writing is important. I'm always pleased to see new faces talking about SENS and other aspects of longevity science, and look forward to the day on which I don't recognize the origin of most of what I read online about rejuvenation biotechnology and the broader field of longevity science.
"I resolve to not get any older." This may seem like a somewhat outlandish New Year's resolution, a desire more grounded in the realm of science fiction than science itself. But a growing group working in the field of biogerontology would argue that it is not. I was able to get an update on the state of the science at a session organized by Dr. Aubrey de Grey, Chief Scientific Officer of the anti-aging organization SENS (Strategic Engineering Negligible Senesence) Research Foundation, last month at the World Stem Cell Summit in San Diego.
Dr. de Grey was careful to make an important distinction about this vein of research and addressed what is known as the "Tithonus Error" - an assumption that postponing aging would extend ill-health rather than health span. In the Greek legend, Tithonus was granted immortality by Zeus at the bequest of his Titan lover and kidnapper, Eos, who in an unfortunate twist forgot to ask for Tithonus' eternal youth, cursing him to living forever in a "loathsome old age...unable to move nor lift his limbs". This public misconception thus mistakes the goal of biogerontology to extend the unhealthy phase of our life rather than the healthy. The therapeutic goal is to shift the balance between how much of our lives are lived as healthy and productive members of society and delay or prevent the onset of age-related disorders such as cancer, cardiovascular disorders and neurodegenerative disease (to name a few).
Dr. de Grey recently examined the state of messaging related to biogerontology and expounded upon the risks in promising too much in the field, lessons that have certainly been learnt in the field of stem cell research and gene therapy. It is clear from the highly accomplished scientific advisory board of SENS Research Foundation that there is considerable conceptual backing behind their goals, but a clear takeaway from the session was that they have only recently begun to enter the area of realistically achieving their goals and meeting expectations.
Q: What do you mean when you say ageing is no longer immutable?
A: I don't say that: I say that we are in striking distance of making it no longer immutable. What that means is that we have a good chance of developing, in the next few decades, medicines that can not only slow down the accumulation of the damage of ageing but actually repair that damage, thereby greatly postponing the disease and disability that it causes.
Q: Do you still believe the "first person to live to 1,000 is already alive"?
A: Yes I do, with high probability (note that I've only ever said "probably"). The same logic I always set out - that the first-generation rejuvenation therapies which we may well have within a couple of decades will only extend healthy life by maybe 30 years, but that that will be enough to let us figure out what to do next to re-rejuvenate the same people 30 years later, etc - is still valid.
Q: You said in a recent talk that ageing is the world's "most important problem". Is it more important than all of the problems we face (of which overpopulation, pollution, energy shortage, climate crisis, mass species extinction, desertification, ocean acidification, overfishing, general scientific illiteracy and human nature itself are but a few) which threaten the quality of our life? And why?
A: Yes, obviously it's more important than any other problem. How is any other problem even a problem at all, if you're already dead? The right way of thinking about this is that defeating ageing will give us a proper perspective on the long-term importance of other problems.
Q: What is your retort to those who say extending life is "unnatural"?
A: I simply point out that by the same token one can say that all medicine - or even all technology, all the way back to fire and the wheel - is unnatural. Or, conversely, that it is natural for humans to seek to create the unnatural as ways to improve their quality of life, and unnatural for humans to submit to living with nature as they find it.
Q: Finally, are you optimistic about the future?
A: I don't like the word "optimistic" because so many people interpret it to mean "over-optimistic". I'm realistic about the future: I have a more optimistic view than many other people, but only for very rational reasons based on actual data.