It has always been the case that the cause of serious rejuvenation research needs more well-regarded individuals to stand up and talk in public about the road ahead, the prospects for success, and the righteousness of the goal. Just lay out the situation as it is, no need for salesmanship: it is simply the need for this to be a topic not left on the edge of polite society. Aging is by far the greatest cause of suffering and death in the world, and we should all be doing more than we are to help bring an end to all of that pain, disease, and loss. For that to happen, the vast majority of people who never think about aging and rarely think about medical research need to give the topic at least as much thought and approval as presently goes towards the cancer research community.
We find ourselves in a peculiar time. Technological barriers to the successful treatment of aging are next to non-existent; progress is falling out of the woodwork even at low levels of funding and interest; this is an age of revolutionary gains in the tools of biotechnology, and that drives the pace of medicine while the cost of meaningful research plummets. This isn't a space race situation in which the brute force of vast expenditure was used to wrest a chunk of the 21st century into the 20th and land men on the moon. If following the SENS program aimed at repair of the causes of aging, the cost of implementing the first prototype, working rejuvenation treatments in old mice would by current estimates be only 1-2% of the Apollo Program budget. There was vast popular approval for the space race to match the vast expense. The path to human rejuvenation is in exactly the opposite situation: there is very little support for the goal of treating aging as medical condition, but the costs of doing so successfully are so small that given even a minority of the public in favor those funds would be raised.
This is why advocacy is so very important. This is why people with large soapboxes can help greatly simply by talking on the topic. Investor and philanthropist Peter Thiel has been supporting scientific programs such as SENS and related areas in biotechnology for a decade now, but I notice that he is more vocal and direct in public about this cause now that other organizations such as Google Ventures are making large investments. This is all good; we need a sea change in the level of public support for rejuvenation research, and their understanding of the prospects for the future. Aging is far from set in stone, and a range of the biotechnologies needed to treat aging and bring it under medical control are on the verge of breaking out into commercial development, or just a few years away from that point. All it takes to turn the stream into a rapids is a little more rain.
WP: Why aging?
Thiel: I've always had this really strong sense that death was a terrible, terrible thing. I think that's somewhat unusual. Most people end up compartmentalizing, and they are in some weird mode of denial and acceptance about death, but they both have the result of making you very passive. I prefer to fight it. Almost every major disease is linked to aging. One in a thousand get cancer after age 30. Nixon declared war on cancer in 1971, and there has been frustratingly slow progress. One-third of people age 85 and older have Alzheimer's or dementia, and we're not even motivated to start a war on Alzheimer's. At the end of the day, we need to do more.
WP: All your philanthropic projects are founded on the idea that there's something wrong with the way the current system works. What are the challenges you see in biomedical research?
Thiel: I worry the FDA is too restrictive. Pharmaceutical companies are way too bureaucratic. A tiny fraction of a fraction of a fraction of NIH [National Institutes of Health] spending goes to genuine anti-aging research. The whole thing gets treated like a lottery ticket. Part of the problem is that aging research doesn't always lend itself to being a great for-profit business, but it's a very important area for a philanthropic investment. NIH grant-making decisions end up being consensus-oriented, focused on doing things that a peer review committee thinks makes sense. So you end up with a very conservative bias in terms of what gets done. [On the other hand,] the original DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] was phenomenally successful. You had a guy running it, and he just gave out the money. It was more focused on substance and less on the grant-writing process. That's the direction we should go. I worry that right now, we have people who are very nimble in the art of writing grants who have squeezed out the more creative.
Thiel: They think far outside the conventional wisdom and are far more optimistic about what can be done. I think that's important to motivate the research.
WP: How long is long enough? Is there an optimal human life span?
Thiel: I believe if we could enable people to live forever, we should do that. I think this is absolute. There are many people who stop trying because they think they don't have enough time. Because they are 85. But that 85-year-old could have gotten four PhDs from 65 to 85, but he didn't do it because he didn't think he had enough time. If it's natural for your teeth to start falling out, then you shouldn't get cavities replaced? In the 19th century, people made the argument that it was natural for childbirth to be painful for women and therefore you shouldn't have pain medication. I think the nature argument tends to go very wrong. . . . I think it is against human nature not to fight death.
WP: Assuming the breakthrough in eternal life doesn't come in our lifetime, what do you hope to have achieved through your philanthropy before you die? What would you like to be remembered for?
Thiel: I think if we made some real progress on the aging thing, I think that would be an incredible legacy to have. I have been fortunate with my business successes, so I would like to encourage, coordinate and help finance the many great scientists and entrepreneurs that will help bring about the technological future. It's sort of not important for me to get credit for the specific discoveries, but if I can act as a supporter, mentor and financier, I think that feels like the right thing.