Changing the View of Aging: Are We Winning Yet?

Peter Thiel, who has invested millions into the SENS rejuvenation research programs over the past decade, has of late been talking much more in public on the topic of treating aging. Having wealth gives you a soapbox, and it is good that he is now using it to help the cause of treating aging as a medical condition. One of Thiel's recent public appearances was a discussion on death and religion in this context.

In the struggle to produce meaningful progress in rejuvenation research, the tipping point can come from either a very large amount of money, hundreds of millions of dollars at least, dedicated to something very similar to the SENS research programs, or from a widespread shift in the commonplace view of aging. At the large scale and over the long term medical research priorities reflect the common wisdom, and it is my view that public support is needed to bring in very large contributions to research. The wealthiest philanthropists and largest institutional funding bodies follow the crowd as a rule, they only rarely lead it. They presently give to cancer and stem cell research precisely because the average fellow in the street thinks that both of these are a good idea.

So it is very important that we reach a point at which research into treating degenerative aging is regarded as a sensible course of action, not something to be ridiculed and rejected. Over the past decade or two a great deal of work has gone into this goal on the part of a small community advocates and researchers. It is paying off; the culture of science and the media's output on aging research is a far cry from what it was ten years ago. When ever more authorities and talking heads are soberly discussing the prospects of extended healthy life and research into the medical control of aging, it is to be hoped that the public will follow. Inevitably religion is drawn in as a topic in these discussions once you start moving beyond the scientific community:

The Venn diagram showing the overlap of people who are familiar with both Peter Thiel and N.T. Wright is probably quite small. And I think it is indicative of a broader gap between those doing technology and those doing theology. It is a surprise that a large concert hall in San Francisco would be packed with techies eager to hear a priest and an investor talk about death and Christian faith, even if that investor is Peter Thiel.

Thiel has spoken elsewhere about the source of his optimism about stopping and even reversing aging. The idea is to do what we are doing in every other area of life: apply powerful computers and big data to unlock insights to which, before this era, we've never had access. Almost everyone I talk with about these ideas has the same reaction. First there is skepticism  - that can't really happen, right? Second, there is consideration  - well those Silicon Valley guys are weird, but if anyone has the brains and the money to do it, it's probably them. Finally comes reflection, which often has two parts - 1. I would like to live longer. 2. But I still feel a little uneasy about the whole idea.

The concept of indefinite life extension feels uncomfortable to people, thinks Thiel, because we have become acculturated to the idea that death, like taxes, is inevitable. But, he says, "it's not like one day you'll wake up and be offered a pill that makes you immortal." What will happen instead is a gradual and increasingly fast march of scientific discovery and progress. Scientists will discover a cure for Alzheimer's and will say, "Do you want that?" Of course our answer will be "Yes!" They will find a cure for cancer and say, "Do you want that?" And again, of course, our answer will be "Yes!" What seems foreign and frightening in the abstract will likely seem obvious and wonderful in the specific. "It seems," Thiel said, "that in every particular instance the only moral answer is to be in favor of it."

One of Wright's objections was to articulate a skepticism about whether the project of life extension really is all that good, either for the individual or for the world. "If [I] say, okay I'll live to be 150. I'll still be a sinner. I'll still be conflicted. I'll still have wrong emotions. Do I really want to go on having all that stuff that much longer? Will that be helpful to the world if I do?" This roused Thiel. "I really have to disagree with that last strikes me as very Epicurean in a way." For Peter Thiel, Epicureanism is akin to deep pessimism. It means basically giving up. One gets the sense he finds the philosophy not just disagreeable but offensive to his deepest entrepreneurial instincts and life experience. "We are setting our sights low," he argued, "if we say everyone is condemned to a life of death and suffering."



"If [I] say, okay I'll live to be 150. I'll still be a sinner. I'll still be conflicted. I'll still have wrong emotions. Do I really want to go on having all that stuff that much longer? Will that be helpful to the world if I do?"

Then kill yourself now. Why live one day more with those emotions?

Really, that is supposed to be a serious objection to life extension?

Posted by: Antonio at June 26th, 2015 9:11 AM

"Wright was clear to say he was all for living a full long life, maybe to 100 or 120 years old, “or whatever the case may be.” But he rejected the proposal of eradicating death. He offered two arguments. The first was simple enough: he does not believe God would allow it."

XDDDD Like he didn't allow the discovery and use of antibiotics, vaccines, sanitation, chemotherapy, anesthetics, ...? XD

I'm amazed by the fact that 25 centuries afterwards so many people are still believing in imaginary friends invented by Mesopotamian goatherds.

Posted by: Antonio at June 26th, 2015 9:25 AM

This of the person in the office who has 30, 40 years of experience and think about the people who really like what they do and are forced to retire because of age and health. My father was one of those guys, he worked hard and gained a lot of respect and really liked what he did.

I cant get my head around people who think this should all just end.

Regarding what god wants... really? If your still tied in knots about organized religion, get you flabby ass back to MacDonalds and get fries with that.

Posted by: Frank Rovella at June 26th, 2015 11:25 AM

Are we winning? having Peter Thiel talk openly about life extension is a win of sorts. I'd be much happier if he donated 100 million or 500 million to the SENS foundation. Hopefully that kind of thing will become possible if they can achieve a few breakthroughs/technical demonstrations.

Posted by: Jim at June 26th, 2015 12:50 PM

Interesting article. Thiel brings up a good point... people would all be in favor of eradicating things like cancer or alzheimer's (which would in turn extend life to a degree) yet get uneasy about the term "life extension". It makes no sense to me... but maybe that's because life extension is something I'm in favor of and have given a lot of thought about. It's different wording regarding the same approach. I think gaining support in the field is all about how things are worded and presented.

Posted by: Ham at June 26th, 2015 12:50 PM

I still have yet to hear an objective definition of the word "sin". Its clear it is not synonymous with criminality. According to Christian ideology, it is possible to commit the act of "sin" without engaging in anything a reasonable person would consider to be criminal behavior.

The closest I can figure out is that "sin" means opposition to the religion. In other words, it is another word for "dissent". A "sinner" is actually a dissident. If this is incorrect, perhaps someone can fill me in on it.

Posted by: Abelard Lindsey at June 26th, 2015 1:40 PM


I think "sin" is similar to most organized religion in general, in the sense that it means different things to different people. Much like there are various sects of all the religions with differentiating beliefs and views, sin is subjective to the individual for the most part. Anyway, it irks me to no end when people use the term sin, or even religion in general when discussing things that will generally alleviate suffering and improve lives.

And to what Jim said... It wouldn't surprise me to see that kind of money being donated as breakthroughs occur... we just need that one thing to breakthrough and grab headlines. It would be great if someone like Larry Ellison got back into funding aging research too, especially towards SENS.

Posted by: Ham at June 26th, 2015 2:55 PM

@Abelard Lindsey: "Sin" is a religious concept. It is therefore of no value to people who aren't into those kinds of mystic philosophies.

Posted by: Nico at June 26th, 2015 4:01 PM


To me, the lack of concrete progress is what keeps SENS poorly funded.

So we can get rid of senescent cells... great... any benefit? Well, unless you've been sleeping in a nuclear reactor... not so much.

Thankfully, concrete progress does not have to come from SENS. Someone figures out how to rejuvinate skin and... voilà!

Posted by: Daniel Lemire at June 26th, 2015 6:11 PM

"... the lack of concrete progress is what keeps SENS poorly funded" - that is/was obvious for quite a while, and it was mentioned numerous times. However SENS is not flexible to understand this, so therefore the vicious circle: no minimal proof (and I mean in humans, NOT is mice/flies/worms) no funding.

Donations are just not enough for this effort!

This is "Business 101"

You cold be the greatest scientist in the world, if you do not know how to market, you will not be able to bring your ideas into real world.

Yes, proof is ESSENTIAL in this field to convince people and companies with real money to invest in it. Most likely if SENS had a proof in place a while ago, CALICO was investing in them - they are extremely pragmatic.

SENS just need to design a thorough study and outsource that to other labs, I'm sure will be lots of interested parties.

Every year when Reason is doing its funding campaign, we are getting excited, we donate, etc. hoping that next year SENS is becoming more pragmatical ... then wait another year ... then wait another year ... etc.

So the crucial question is: do they really want to cut the Gordian knot, or not?

Posted by: Adrian Crisan at June 27th, 2015 12:20 PM

Clearing senescent cells is of major importance. The amount of damage they cause transmitting toxic signals (sasp)cannot be understated. I would say next to cancer cells they are the most dangerous. Most cells die properly but these so called zombie cells are top priority. Now there are a few groups working on this but it would be a coup if sens did it first so they have a demonstrable technology to bring in funding and investment.

I agree about the skin regeneration demonstration and at least one company I know of is weeks from testing skin rejuvenation.

Posted by: steve h at June 28th, 2015 3:06 AM

@ Antonio - you missed the point of the discussion. Most likely all of us is looking at that pages from SENS' web site, at least once in a while.

The comments here are about taking that progress from "studies in worms/mice/crickets/etc." and show that at least small things can apply to humans = proof of concept.

Out there, are a lot of research groups that have a solid portfolio, and without claiming they are "curing aging", they still work on the same path. The difference is that, some of these groups already have stuff in clinical trials and therefore not having (huge) difficulties to attract funds.

To understand better, here is an example. Compare the recent educational videos that SENS uploaded under youtube. Look at the mitochondrial one:

then compare with the portfolio that Stealth Biotherapeutics have in the same/similar area:

If you are an investor with money, where you will place your money? Will you place your money in a nice animation or in a company that already shows some promising results in humans?

Now you understand the point of the discussion?

It is like the slogan on Ichor Therapeutics' web site:

"It's not about ideas. It's about making ideas happen."

- Scott Belsky

I guess, there is no one individual on this blog that will not want SENS to succeed. It is just that they lack some things that are critical to move at an appropriate speed: and one of that is called marketing.

The really need to built upon successful research and correct ones that aren't going as planned.

Posted by: Adrian at June 28th, 2015 7:40 AM

Adrian said the lack of concrete progress which I am taking to mean a procedure demonstrating rejuvenation in people of one of the seven deadly SENS types.

There are a lot of publications by SENS but Adrian makes sense, proof is ESSENTIAL if you want to convince the majority of people, otherwise they remain in the deathist denial trance.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary data - people want to see human rejuvenation not mice, not rats, not flatworms! As Dr Fossel said "most people dont give a rip how long mice live, they dont care"

SENS is making progress yes but Adrian makes very valid comments about winning mass support.

Posted by: Steve H at June 28th, 2015 8:11 AM

@Daniel Lemire: I think you may be relying on some poorly-written popular accounts of the recent senescent cell clearance studies. The "senolytic" paper showed that even their relatively crude pharmacological clearance partially rejuvenated the carotid artery vascular reactivity, endothelial function, and cardiac function in normally-aging mice. And there is unpublished work into which I can't go into detail showing benefits using a transgenic clearance system substantially rejuvenates standard mouse models of diabetes, atherosclerosis, and Parkinson's disease. (Andersen presented slightly earlier research on ablation of senescent cells in Parkinson's disease mouse models at Rejuvenation Biotechnology 2014.

Adrian, your most recent comments here about "lack of concrete progress" seem, again, to be intended as criticism (whereas it sounds like Daniel simply meant it as a fairly obvious observation). We've discussed these issues before, of course (skip down to "there's a lot here, of course"). But here you seem to imply that SENS Research Foundation is somehow stubbornly refusing to take existing work into human clinical trials. I can assure you that this isn't the case. Our scientists (at the Research Center and in the University labs that we fund) are working as hard as they can, and no one would be happier than I (or, OK, Dr. de Grey, or Mike Kope, or anyone on the team) for all of this work to translate into a human-ready rejuvenation biotechnology. But even with an unlimited budget, it does simply take time to do scientific work from the ground up.

And, of course, our budget is extremely small. By far, that lack of funding (whether flowing through SENS Research Foundation, or directed to rejuvenation research in public biomedical research institutes, biotech startups, and Big Pharma) is the biggest direct choke point on getting rejuvenation biotechnology, and there's no sense in telling ourselves that the science itself could just "go faster" if we merely willed it to, or that viable preclinical therapies would just land in our laps ready for clinical trials.

Posted by: Michael at June 28th, 2015 1:02 PM

Maria Konovalenko is doing an AMA on reddit right now. Here is one of the questions someone asked. I'm putting it here, because the name of this article is Changing the view of Aging: Are we winning yet?, and felt it was somewhat relevant. It's a bit more in depth than the standard "but, but, overpopulation!" objection:

"Let me offer a more sophisticated version of a common argument that I feel is too easily dismissed by advocates of this technocratic world view that transhumanism emphasize. When people talk about the dangers of overpopulation, they are not really talking about overpopulation, they are talking about the amount of resources that are available to us. The historical natural checks against consuming more resources that can be supported at an sustainable equilibrium rate is the exactly the things you want to slow down and eventually get rid of, things like illness and death. The truth of the matter is that we live in a world with diminishing natural resources due to over-exploitation and unsustainable consumption practices. I think just recently I saw news articles saying scientists are declaring a fifth extinction event. The oceans are over fished, and current agriculture practices are terrible in many ways. China has 1.3 billion people and India will soon surpass China in a decade or two. These countries are hungry economic giants equivalent to how the US was like after world war two and one in the 20th century eager to raise their standard of living to what they see in Europe and the US. There are studies estimating that with what we can currently extract from the earth, we might just need a few extra earths if those developing countries start using resources at the same rate per capita as the developed world. There are dire predictions about the rivers in the world capacity to keep up with increasing demands. People have on base of these geopolitical reality been predicting wars over the Jordan River in the middle east among other regions. What aquifers and reservoirs we have took million of years to form in the first place and are drying up. Did I even mention global warming yet? If these projects taking place at SENS and other research institutes succeed, instead of solving for a existential risk for individuals you might be giving birth to a new one for humanity in general. Now I know what you are going to say to this criticism, you will respond that many of these problems are solvable through technological means and indeed I agree, that's the very meaning of the world technology and there are no physical laws and no go theorems to prevent such things from happening. However let's run a risk assessment, is such a thing likely to happen? Are we really likely to start using renewable energies and start adopting carbon emission limits and practice sustainable resource consumption patterns that will allow the environment to recover at the drop of a hat? No, there are well developed industries and political interests that would drag it on as long as they could because they value short term profits over long term thinking. And are these sustainable practices likely to be able to fit in a world where no one dies? Yes demographically trends point at how people in more developed countries live longer and have less kids as a result of better infant mortality and all that, but are these extrapolations going to be valid in a world where women will forever look like they are in their 20s and 30s and where menopause will probably not exist because it's a consequence of aging. What I'm saying is essentially very simple, when bacteria is giving all the room and resources it wants to reproduce, the population explodes. While humans have a much higher doubling time, your proposal will essentially double, triple the time people have available for making babies, infact if no one died, your reproductive lifespan will be your natural lifespan. A very well studied model in biology is a simple predator prey relationship modeled by maybe a second order differential equation. If suddenly there is a lot more prey, the predators are happy and their population increase, but this is kept in check by the fact their population will grow and decrease when they ate too much prey and don't have enough food. The concept I'm getting at is by removing death and illness from the equation, you have fundamentally removed an equilibrium that natural selection has selecting for. In order to keep up, technology from now on and for ever will have to be able to supply us with the energy humanity needs. Are you confident that it can do that? What about when we build a Dyson sphere and exhaust all the energy in the solar system? Without FTL, how are we going to get to other solar systems in a realistic amount of time? The caveat on this if you are willing to cure death, why not get rid of the desire to reproduce to begin with? The caveat to the caveat is that even if that's doable, I doubt transhumanism would be very popular if it starts advocating for no more babies to be made. Mass sterilization has a nice oh Stalinain ring to it."

The question gets into some things that are much further out there than anyone here is reasonably thinking about I'd wager, but these are the types of thought processes that are going to come up. Maria hasn't responded to it yet. I obviously think technology is ultimately going to be the driving force behind most of the problems here. I also think that people tend to go from 0-120 and think we're going from aging without disease to a world where no one dies suddenly.

Posted by: Ham at June 28th, 2015 4:13 PM

Michael, to head off a rehash of the inevitable arguments: it doesn't matter what you say to try to convince us; it's not us you have to convince. We don't have the money. The public does, and now the industry does.

What has SENS done, if anything, to partner with biotech companies that have this money? Is that even an option? Has a SENS-funded lab ever created research that is of interest to Stealth Biotherapeutics (great name, there), Athersys, Calico, or any other emerging biotech company? Don't imply that no one's willing to spend money on anti-aging therapeutics when Calico and the NIH are throwing their weight around. The money obviously is there, it's just that you're not getting much of it.

And you should know better than to bring up unpublished research. If it's not published, it didn't happen.

Posted by: Slicer at June 28th, 2015 5:03 PM

With regard to the idea of going for quick wins, it's vital to understand that we're in this business to reach the finish line, not to get half way and then sink in quicksand. Many of my colleagues in biogerontology have adopted the quick-win approach and failed. The basic flaw in the strategy is that so-called "concrete progress" always ends up being progress in a direction that doesn't scale - that doesn't deliver on its ostensible promise. And conversely, if we decided that it doesn't matter whether it scales if it earns money to do stuff that will, we would end up in direct competition with those who are already going for quick wins for their own sake. SRF could try to develop a new face cream, but we wouldn't do it better than L'Oreal, so it wouldn't earn us money. However, there is a middle ground, which is to spawn sister entities that are working on relatively quick wins and are organised in a way that will have their profits come back to support the harder components of SENS. It's amusing that someone above mentioned Ichor as an example of what we should be doing, evidently not realising that Ichor is the creation of one of SRF's most dynamic and effective alumni.

Posted by: Aubrey de Grey at June 29th, 2015 9:15 AM

"...evidently not realising that Ichor is the creation of one of SRF's most dynamic and effective alumni."

Wait, what? People from SENS have gone on to found biotech companies? I didn't know that either. It's not exactly well-advertised.

And I'm not sure if it should be, actually. It increases the perceived legitimacy of the organization, but it also implies to a jaded public that surely SENS can get its money from its affiliated corporations rather than from them.

"However, there is a middle ground, which is to spawn sister entities that are working on relatively quick wins and are organised in a way that will have their profits come back to support the harder components of SENS."

Well, that answers my question about partnerships! If this actually works, I'll finally shut up about SENS' marketing strategy (or lack thereof). Seems to be a better approach than "throw your name out to the public, and hope".

Posted by: Slicer at June 29th, 2015 12:22 PM

There seems to be a lot of debate as to whether the current financial state of SENS and its respective leg of the industry will be somehow determinant of a final outcome. Every disruptive technology starts out being seen as but a pawn for criticism by skeptics. Some fail. The ones that do not, gather steam with a multiplicative forward progression, with funding matching both the degree of mainstream publicity and the corresponding numerical percentage of such a demographic that delves into the science and henceforth capitulates cynicism in favor of rational optimism. Nothing is ever guaranteed; that being relative to such terms as in case of an isolated project or grouping of ideologies. What is more certain is that, should enough awareness shed light on a wheel and cart that was once but a log and a ramp, eventually an automobile will birth itself from the collective mind of the public until an ideology emerges, despite all skepticism, and the automobile(standard gerontology) is replaced in triplicate factors safety, efficacy and efficiency, eventually favoring the airplane (example being SENS, etc - though, the example being premature to takeoff as of today's date, with launch and landing more likely than not if seen through to completion).

As for those debating religion: there is no rational debate at the current time other than from a theoretical perspective. Religion can not prove the existence of God; science has not discovered all that is ever to exist and the correlated inner-workings of an infinitely expanding universe and therefore cannot conclusively disprove an existence of a universal creator.

There is much middle ground here on all fronts and so much to be gained by merely moving forward without so much of the 'I am right and you are wrong' dynamic. There is a quote from an old Tom Hanks movie, Philadelphia, which is but a near perfect bridge between the scientific and religious camps - though both sides will inevitably have innumerable reasons to prove it otherwise in respective favor of the antagonist's party.

"Live still, I am life. Heaven is in your eyes. Is everything around you just the blood and mud? I am divine. I am oblivion. I am the god... that comes down from the heavens, and makes of the Earth a heaven. I am love!... I am love."

Should there be a God, it is likely that such an entity touted of having the highest love and morality would rather see the great creation of the aforementioned evolve by the smaller and more copious human variables of creation, into paradise promised, rather than a 'burn most eternally and save only some' type of ultimatum. Should there not be a God, we are still capable of higher forms of morality and altruism by the strength to remove self in favor of others and their greater good. What greater good is there than to save the lives of all, rather than finding reasons why it should not be done, as apposed to troubleshooting as we go, such as in the case of near everything else that has been debated and brought to slow, grinding fruition over the course of our evolution. There will be problems with everything, but to let everyone die in fear of problems, seems like a sin, religious or not. According to some religions, pride is the original sin; and fear, when not needed immediately as a survival mechanism, but used more so as an ongoing thought process, is born of pride in that ongoing fear is obsession with what cannot be controlled - with the need for control being born of pride; biochemical anomalies as causation of anxieties need not apply.

Posted by: Adam at June 29th, 2015 8:39 PM

It was barely ten minutes ago SENS came into existence and they have a rather small budget in relation to the vast task at hand, with that in mind I think they're doing pretty well. But of course, I'd like to see more more more. Let's all do what we can to make sure that we will win. For me it's personal, I've lost nearly everything in life and longevity is my one shot at getting it back. Rage against the dying of the light...

Posted by: Northus at June 30th, 2015 5:34 PM

@Slicer and to some extent @Adrian: I am a bit surprised (but really probably shouldn't be) that it Ichor's Kelsey Moody isn't known, at least within our circles, to have been a SENS Research Foundation alumnus: his role and focus on the Mission is so known and acknowledged inside of the Foundation — and his work has been highlighted enough at the Cambridge SENS Conferences and elsewhere — that I guess I kind of assume that anyone following the Foundation must know of it. He established and poured an enormous amount of energy into setting up what would become SRF Education while SRF was still a sort of division of the Methuselah Foundation, did research at our Research Center, and did much to help out "on the side." Have a look at Kelsey's bio at Ichor, and Google search of Kelsey on our website. Also, his cofounder was the amazing former SRF Research Center Summer Scholar Jenny Sims, and she still has a hand (mostly, as I understand it, as a consultant) in the company.

Second, on the broader question of tech transfer and partnerships with the nascent rejuvenation biotechnology industry: there will be a section devoted to highlighting many such relationships in our upcoming Annual Report. I hope you'll be even more pleased to see the scope of that emerging network, even as the central issues do remain as Aubrey and I have stated them.

Posted by: Michael at July 14th, 2015 12:50 PM

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