The Immortalists

The Immortalists is a human interest film focused on Aubrey de Grey of the SENS Research Foundation and Bill Andrews of Sierra Sciences, and will premier at this year's SXSW.

Two extraordinary scientists struggle to create eternal youth with medical breakthroughs in a world they call "blind to the tragedy of old age." Bill Andrews is a lab biologist and famed long-distance runner racing against the ultimate clock. Aubrey de Grey is a genius theoretical biologist who conducts his research with a beer in hand. They differ in style and substance, but are united in their common crusade: cure aging or die trying. They publicly brawl with the old guard of biology who argue that curing aging is neither possible nor desirable. As they battle their own aging and suffer the losses of loved ones, their journeys toward life without end ultimately become personal.

As you might guess this isn't really a popular science effort, but rather an entry into the time-honored documentary genre of giving screen time to strong characters in an industry largely unfamiliar to the public, people who are forging their way against the flow, working to achieve great and unusual things. There's a blog and PDF press kit if you want to look further.

You can also get a sense of the thing from the trailer, but I'll use this as a springboard to note the existence of a very real challenge when it comes to advocacy and fundraising for efforts to develop the means to treat and reverse degenerative aging. The public at large, and even people who take a little time to investigate the work of the research community, largely cannot tell the difference between serious efforts that might actually work, such as the work of the SENS Research Foundation and its allies, and scientific-sounding efforts that are in fact just ways to sell supplements that cannot possibly do anything meaningful to the course of aging, which is what has become of Sierra Sciences.

Sierra Sciences was at one point a serious effort to investigate manipulation of telomeres and telomerase as a means to treat aging, but at some point venture capital demands profits. Hence the slide of this company, like others before it, from legitimate research venture to just another group selling packaged herb extracts. Somewhere back in the day someone figured out that if you sound like a scientist people will buy what you sell regardless of how dubious your pitch is. It works even better if you actually used to be a scientist - so that's what we tend to see in this sort of situation. It's a damn shame, but it is what it is.

So you have a film equating de Grey, who coordinates a well-supported disruption of the status quo in aging research, complete with ongoing research projects aimed at the creation of actual, real rejuvenation over the next few decades, with Andrews, who is a scientist turned supplement seller - yet another in the long series of people to leave the rails of doing meaningful research in favor of hawking marginal and frankly dubious products here and now. These two people and the broader efforts they represent couldn't be more different. One is a shot at rejuvenation, and the other has made himself irrelevant to that goal.

This is a microcosm of the reasons why much of the mainstream scientific community are exceedingly unhappy with the "anti-aging" marketplace. When folk in the street - and journalists who know better, but who live and die by page view counts - don't take the time to distinguish between fraudulent "anti-aging" products and legitimate laboratory research, and the largest megaphones are wielded by supplement sellers, then the fundraising environment for aging research becomes challenging.

The future of longevity is not herbal supplements, never was herbal supplements, and never will be herbal supplements. Anyone trying to sell you a supposedly longevity-enhancing ingested product here and now, today, has left the real road to human rejuvenation far behind. All they have to sell are wishes, dreams, and lies. The only valid, viable way forward is to fund the right sort of research: the development of targeted therapies capable of repairing or reversing the known root causes of aging, and stop-gap treatments such as stem cell therapies that can temporarily reverse some of the consequences of aging to a degree that merits the high cost of development. Nothing exists today that can accomplish that first goal, and it will be at least two decades before early rejuvenation therapies emerge, even assuming great progress in fundraising over that time.

So to meander to a conclusion: there is probably no such thing as bad publicity. The more that the public hears about the prospects for treating aging, more likely it is that some people will come to favor that goal, and the easier it becomes for scientists to raise funds for new ventures or to expand existing SENS programs. But I, not in the target audience of course, would much prefer to see that done in a more discriminating way than the example herein.


I would reserve judgement until the film is released. I'm more or less in favour of it because it seems like a thoughtful presentation of the views at the time. If the science of SENS is presented properly then I don't see any problem. Only a relitively small number of people need to support SRF financially and part of that number are going to be people who will see the film.

Posted by: Michael at February 27th, 2014 7:14 PM

I'm less forgiving. Anyone documentary filmmaker categorizing Aubrey and SENS facilely as "immortalists" and then lumping them together with a supplements entrepreneur is looking to profit off the public's ignorance.

You may be right, however, that "there is probably no such thing as bad publicity."

I wonder, however, if the anti-aging research program needs a more passionate spokesmen than its current leaders. Maybe we need a motivational figure to lay out the basic question to people: do you want to live an extra ten, twenty, thirty years or do you want to die after a short and debilitating retirement?

Posted by: Therapsid at February 27th, 2014 10:41 PM

Yeah this sucks that the film is not just about SENS, but lumps SENS in with snake oil.

Posted by: Jim at February 28th, 2014 4:02 AM

Right, "I want you to support the cause I'm the face of", "it's the most important issue in the world", and to convince you "I'm going to aggressively tongue kiss my wife in the nude on camera".

It was awesome until that point and then it felt like I was watching a Will Ferrell movie. A really stupid move by a really smart man. It's not what I expect from a leader of the most important cause in the world.

Posted by: Johnathan at February 28th, 2014 1:53 PM

@Jonathan - I agree that someone needs to have a word in Audrey's ear to tell him not to take his kit off on film... until he has rejuvinated his body so that it looks 30 (or less) once again.

It really sucks that Bill Andrews has given up and sold out. Also I think he is being pretty damn optimistic when he says that he is going to save his 84 year old father. 20 year olds probably have a decent chance of seeing some of the necessary technologies come about. Everyone else is dicing with death a bit unfortunately.

Posted by: Jim at February 28th, 2014 10:40 PM

I would be interested to know, given the situation, if an anonymous donor was willing to give SENS research, specifically those who would focus and supervise the research, a near unlimited amount of money - say in several $10^9 on the condition that the solution would not be available publicly for a few generations, be kept utterly secret, and be limited to use on a key group of people - say 1000 hand-picked by the donor, would those key SENS researchers do it? Let's say the donation allowed the research to come to fruition 30 years before it otherwise would - but those 30 years would be spent on that elite chosen group. They need to ask themselves, given the choice, is finding the solution quickly more important than allowing it to be publicly available? Are they scientists first or human beings first, given that they must choose? When you answer this question, i think then you will find out how devoted the SENS people are to a solution or 'saving humanity' - a lot more of a difference than one would suppose.

Posted by: Jer at February 28th, 2014 10:53 PM

Recently, I was beginning to have doubts about Bill Andrews and the above reviews corroborates to me that he is basically a snake oil seller. (I am not going to reorder Product B!). What a waste--he was otherwise a really smart man.

Posted by: Shafiq Ahmad at March 1st, 2014 11:18 PM

We should try to convince some famous author like Dan Brown to put the theme of life extension as background for his next novel, then we would definitely raise some public interest on the subject.

Posted by: Diego at March 6th, 2014 7:34 PM

Basically, all we have to worry about is the outcome (what has to be done in order for research to move faster and treatments to come sooner). For this to happen, a lot more funds have to go to the right RND companies. For now, mostly (or only) donations are given by private investors, however if even one developed government decided to invest part of its health program into this field, the total funds available could easily double, or triple, who knows. The only way any government funds will be given is when the community recognizes this as a relevant problem, and this will only happen when a larger portion of the population is informed. This movie can certainly help a lot. Congratz to Aubrey de Grey for having realized this so early on and taking the time to give all the speeches that he does. Congratz

The movie probably portrayed some parts that were irrelevant to the science behind aging, but regardless I would consider the movies existence a possible big help to inform people worldwide. Anyone searching "immortality" will probably come across it and be able to see for themselves a small portion of the science that is being developed in this direction.

Posted by: Mark at April 19th, 2014 7:19 AM

Full disclosure: I'm an employee of Sierra Sciences, but I'm not writing this on behalf of the company; these opinions are mine and mine alone.

This article advances the view that Dr. Andrews and Sierra Sciences stopped doing telomere research in favor of selling herbal supplements. That view is not grounded in fact. Screening on pharmaceutical candidates at Sierra Sciences is continuing; we remain the only company in the world whose chemists have designed small molecules that induce hTERT to above 10% of the level of HeLa, and our mission is to spearhead a medicinal chemistry effort to get that efficacy above 100%, at which point we plan to move to pre-clinical trials.

We have scientists at the lab, every week, doing whatever basic cell and molecular biology we can afford to lay the groundwork for that effort. I wouldn't be retrieving dozens of publications every month for our scientists, or transcribing science strategy meetings that go right over my layperson head, if we were only interested in selling supplements.

Sierra Sciences hasn't lost a shred of enthusiasm for our pharmaceutical effort.

Posted by: Jon Cornell at September 8th, 2014 6:24 PM

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