Radical Life Extension: an Interview with Aubrey de Grey

"Life extension" and "radical life extension" are declining terms these days, less frequently used now that the scientific community is stepping closer to being able to build the means of greatly extending healthy life spans. The original overarching visions of far longer lives achieved through medical progress, laid out in the 70s and 80s and vague on the details, will fade away in the face of increasing specificity and concrete implementations. The communities who will in the years ahead launch companies and make money by building and distributing actual, working rejuvenation therapies: it is these people who will coin the new terms we use for the next few decades. For now there are intermediary categories: longevity science; rejuvenation biotechnology; an expansion of regeneration medicine to include treatment of aging. But I have no more idea than you as to what we'll be calling the rejuvenation therapies of the 2030s when those years are upon us. Language is a river, and you take it as it comes.

Aubrey de Grey is the cofounder of the Methuselah Foundation and SENS Research Foundation. He devotes half of his time to the coordination of research needed to speed progress towards working rejuvenation treatments and the other half traveling and speaking to persuade the rest of the world to help. If you ever find yourself doubting that we all live in a madhouse society, blind to what really matters, then consider that it is in fact very hard to persuade people to help with medical research that will prevent their future selves from suffering horribly. The population at large veers between disinterest in ensuring their future health and hostility to the idea that anyone else might be trying to better maintain their health by treating aging as a medical condition. No matter that more than 100,000 lives are lost to aging every day, while millions of others are in pain, decrepit and frail, most people still instinctively defend that status quo.

Here I'll link to a recent interview with de Grey in the technology press. The highly networked venture capital, entrepreneur, and technology community centered in California - but with growing outposts across the US - has been very supportive of SENS rejuvenation research over the years, at least in comparison to the rest of the population. Many of the most influential donors are from this community, and there is no doubt a retrospective to be written at some point at some point in the future, a work that will outline the connections and explain just why it is that the prospect of radically enhanced longevity achieved through medical progress strikes a chord so effectively with programmers and technology entrepreneurs.

Radical lifespan extension: A chat with Aubrey de Grey

Reese: What's the current state of the effort to "cure death"?

de Grey: Well, first off, let's be perfectly clear. I don't work on "curing death." I work on health. I work on keeping people healthy. And, yes, I understand that success in my work could translate into an important side effect, which is that people would, on average, live longer. But ultimately, the main thing people die of is being unhealthy, being sick. And if you can keep people less sick, it means that they're going to live longer. Now, it happens that the particular way in which I am working on stopping people from getting sick is a really comprehensive one that applies to all aspects of the ill health of old age, so the side effect is going to be bigger than people are used to. But still, it's just a side effect. I don't work on longevity. I work on health.

And another big thing to understand is that even if you think, well, this is just words, and I really do work on longevity, the fact is I still don't work on "curing death," because you can die of a whole bunch of other things. You can die by being hit by a truck. We can all die if we get hit by an asteroid. So it's all about health.

Reese: If you achieved all of your aims of curing all disease and promoting health, do you think the human body then has a natural limit to its life span?

de Grey: Absolutely not. I think that as things stand today, before the medicines that we are working on have come to fruition, that there is definitely a natural maximum life span, because there are various types of damage that the body does to itself as a side effect of the way the body works. The best example of this is breathing. Breathing is pretty damn nonnegotiable. But the effect of breathing is the creation of free radicals, which cause a lot of damage. So yes, damage is always happening, and right now there is only so much that we can do to minimize that rate, and there's only so much accumulated damage that we can tolerate.

But our work revolves around repairing that ongoing damage. And that will completely transcend any such limits. It's just like a vintage car. Vintage cars were not designed to last more than ten or 15 years, but preventive maintenance, so long as it's comprehensive, can completely transcend any such limits.

Reese: What do you think are going to be the social impacts of extending people's lives?

de Grey: There will be enormous social consequences, no question. But I think we need to look at this question a little bit more objectively than most people do. The fact is that, yes, we need to figure out issues like, how will we pay the pensions, and so forth, so everybody gets these therapies. But these are not new questions. Think about the Industrial Revolution. We didn't know what we were doing, we figured it out. We've got to remember that the main purpose is to stop people from getting sick just because they were born a long time ago. Ultimately, if you ask anyone - if you ask an audience, whether they want to get Alzheimer's disease, you're going to get a fairly unanimous "no."

And if you ask them whether they would like to get Alzheimer's disease when they reach the age of a hundred, you're still going to get the unanimous "no," and it's the same for cancer. It's the same for all of the diseases of old age. The real reason we get these crazy questions - you know, like "how will we make sure that this is available to everybody?" - is because they have this crazy, crazy idea in their heads that there is this thing called aging, that is in some way completely separate, completely unconnected with any disease. In biological reality, there is no such distinction.


The switch away from "longevity" to "health" is a calculated rhetorical shift and one that makes good sense.

Investors, the federal government, and large biotech companies invest in health. Only the supplement buyers try to purchase longevity.

Posted by: Slicer at September 11th, 2015 6:13 PM

I agree with what you said here Slicer.

I posted pretty much the same thing in another thread, but anyways:

I feel like most of the recent interviews with Aubrey de Grey have been pretty much the same, and the interviewers all ask the same shallow questions. I don't know how many times you can ask the guy the same questions. I will say, when asked about the "social consequences" I think Aubrey might be severely understating them. We all know there is going to need to be social reforms (we currently need reforms NOW, not to mention when people live longer), but these issues are certainly slow to fix and change. There are plenty of people who have said they would rather die than have to work longer in order to live longer, and this is likely an area that will be difficult to implement a change (because realistically, how can someone expect a company to pay them 80 years worth of a pensions, for example). Not even mentioning people who want to argue about nature, playing god, resources, population, or those who just don't understand the point of the research. I guess I just wish more people were aware of and supporting this (I don't want to say prepared, as there isn't anything imminent), so it doesn't hit us like a ton of bricks when something is actually available to roll out.

I love the idea that Aubrey wants the SENS treatments to be available to everyone. However, I realistically don't see this happening worldwide, at least initially. There are still people in this world that don't have the vaccines, medicine, or clean water that many of us seem to take for granted... so I think initial availability might depend on where in the world you live. I could see this causing MASSIVE social uproar for those who won't have access initially. I hope I'm wrong here though. I definitely believe that everyone should be entitled to a long and healthy, disease free life. Of course, there are many who will oppose all of this or simply won't want this for themselves, so I could see public opinion and of course, bioethicists mucking things up and causing massive delays while they debate morals and philosophy (like their opinions are the be all, end all).

One way perception could possibly change is if people take the idea of longevity out of it (though its likely a massive side effect) and view the SENS treatments as a preventative measure against cancer, Alzheimers, and all the other fun things that come with aging... but even then people will still argue "but then what will people die from", so it's unlikely to make everyone happy and get everyone on board. But I do think the switch to the term "health" like Slicer mentioned before is key, and makes a lot of sense.

Posted by: Ham at September 11th, 2015 7:57 PM

Yesterday I finished rereading "Ending Aging" and the second-to-last chapter is in stark contrast with this.

"Now, your first thought may be: Hang on, if indefinite life extension is so unpalatable, wouldn't funding be attracted more easily by keeping quiet about it? Well, no—and for a pretty good reason."

"The world's richest man, Bill Gates, set up a foundation a few years ago whose primary mission is to address health issues in the developing world. This is a massively valuable humanitarian effort, which I wholeheartedly support, even though it doesn't directly help SENS at all. I'm not the only person who supports it, either: In 2006 the world's second richest man, Warren Buffett, committed a large proportion of his fortune to be donated in annual increments to the Gates Foundation."

"The eagerness of extremely wealthy individuals to contribute to world health is, in more general terms, an enormous boost for SENS. This is mainly because a rising tide raises all boats: once it has become acceptable (even meritorious) among that community to be seen as a large-scale health philanthropist, those with "only" a billion or two to their name will be
keener to join the trend than if it is seen as a crazy way to spend your hard-earned money."

"But there's a catch. That logic only works if the moral status of SENS is seen to compare with that of the efforts that are now being funded so well. And that's where LEV makes all the difference."

"SENS therapies will be expensive to develop and expensive to administer, at least at first. Let's consider how the prospect of spending all that money might be received if the ultimate benefit would be only to add a couple of decades to the lives of people who are already living longer than most in the developing world, after which those people would suffer the same duration of functional decline that they do now."

"It's not exactly the world's most morally imperative action, is it?"

"Indeed, I would go so far as to say that, if I were in control of a few billion dollars, I would be quite hesitant to spend it on such a marginal improvement in the overall quality and quantity of life of those who are already doing better in that respect than most, when the alternative exists of making a similar or greater improvement to the quality and quantity of
life of the world's less fortunate inhabitants."

Posted by: Antonio at September 12th, 2015 1:34 AM

I would have been uninterested in SENS if all I knew was that they work on "health". It's specifically radical longevity I'm interested in. Obviously healthy longevity, but it's more attention grabbing to hear about longevity first and then learn about health than the other way around. "Working on health" make it sound like all other gazillion projects out there, the ones that deal with symtoms and won't much affect lifespan. To most people aging and health are two different things and they simply won't automatically assume that bettering health will have a big impact on aging. It's more natural to ask "but what about health?" upon hearing about longevity (and then they'll get the answer) than asking "but what about longevity?" upon hearing about health. In the last case they'll at least initially assume that they will age and die even is SENS is successful. Some people will only get interested when they understand they'll stay biologically young.

Posted by: Northus at September 12th, 2015 3:18 AM

I think people will still get that the SENRF is working on radical lifespan extension, the health rhetoric is just being emphasized to explain to people that:

(1) aging is not a separate and special thing from disease, which is actually the model that most people have in their heads (probably due to the conflation of development and aging).

(2) although you can make nebulous arguements about what is 'good for the planet', on a personal level this is an unalloyed good, as who wants to be unhealthy.

But I think (1) is the point they are really trying to get across to a wider public.

Posted by: Jim at September 12th, 2015 4:58 AM

I mostly agree Jim. But opponents of this will argue that fighting aging is good for the individual but bad for society. I see this argument all over the place already. I don't necessarily agree with it, as there are benefits of a mostly healthy and productive population, but it's out there.

Posted by: Ham at September 12th, 2015 5:55 AM

The Malthusian error is alive and well.

Posted by: Jim at September 12th, 2015 10:48 AM

The connection between health and longevity becomes apparent pretty fast when longevity is emphasized, either because people object (but I don't want more years of frailty and disease!) and you get to explain, or because you add that information yourself, that what you're talking about is staying biologically young and healthy. I've never had anyone not understanding that point, all it takes is pretty much a single sentence of explanation. They might not think it's scientifically feasible (which opens up a new discussion, which usually ends favorably) but at least they quickly get that that's the aim.

Emphasizing health is fine as long as it's perfectly clear that it will result in keeping people biologically young -- truly biologically young, not just "youthful". Because that's far from obvious to most and needs to be pointed out explicitly. Otherwise they won't even get what sets SENS apart or why they should support SENS specifically and not just any research working on alzheimers or whatever. The phrase "biologically young" I find very useful because it indicates both health and longevity and we need to stress both.

Posted by: Northus at September 12th, 2015 5:37 PM

I totally agree with you, Northus. It's radical life extension what atracted me to SENS, not health.

Posted by: Antonio at September 12th, 2015 11:20 PM

Again, this is calculated. I'm just not sure whether it was calculated well in advance ("At some point, when this goes mainstream and the medical community starts understanding that 'health' and 'longevity' are the same thing, we should probably try to start talking more about health") or more recently ("I just got off the phone with a potential seven-figure donor who's worried that we're pushing 'longevity' snake oil").

The rest of the interview shows that absolutely nothing has changed other than word choice. The terms that attract people seeking radical departures from the mainstream don't attract the mainstream, where all the money is.

Posted by: Slicer at September 13th, 2015 1:06 AM

What a dull interview. The journalist could have had bothered to do his research and be a tad more original in his questions. Kudos to Aubrey for enduring all that.

Posted by: Nico at September 13th, 2015 9:08 AM

Honestly, it's kind of annoying, Nico. Aubrey gets asked the same questions over and over again, yet interviewers and general public still keep asking them, and misinterpret the answers. I don't get it.

Posted by: Ham at September 13th, 2015 11:20 AM

I think he is going for quantity rather than quality - reaching as many people as possible. Because as strange as it sounds to us, there are still billions of people who don't have a clue about the basics of his argument. I think he should keep this up since we do need numbers, but at the same time it would be good if he could intersperse educating the masses about the ABC with more sophisticated talks about where we are at with the science.

Posted by: Barbara T. at September 14th, 2015 10:25 AM

@Ham: I'm tempted to say that journalists are simply not doing their job properly. The minimum one would expect from an interviewer is that (s)he dig into previous articles about his interviewee and puts them into perspective. If that's not done, then the journalists disrespects his intervewee, his public and his profession altogether.

@Barbara: That's a good point. I guess Aubrey stays away from mental breakdown (okay, exaggerating a little here) by focusing on the masses he needs to reach, instead of the dull questions he must put up with.

Posted by: Nico at September 14th, 2015 11:48 AM

That's where I was leaning too Nico. I know if I was interviewing someone, I'd probably do a bit of research on their past interviews so I could at least try and ask something different. Barbara does have a point with what she says as well, but I still do think that when he answers the questions he might be understating some of the consequences. We'll see. Society needs to change badly, and perhaps this could kickstart it.

Posted by: Ham at September 14th, 2015 1:36 PM

Hi, I would like to Congratulate SENS and fightaging.org, writing from MTL (am French Canadian).

I 100% agree with Northus.
I did a little test using Jeanne Calment (the French lady whom lived 122 years, the humanity dean so far) pics over the years. Just multiply by 2.5x and she reaches a chronological age of 305 years old and dies with a 122 year old biologically-aged body. I am only an observer and know little, but admire you all; but, clearly, it meant this: she is 20 biologically at 50 chronological realtime years, 40 body at a 100... 50 body at 125, 113 body at 282 years old. Then she hits the big three Oh-oh..
300, her body is biologically 120 years old. How many times have you seen a human of 100 or 125 have the body of a 40-50 year old? Never. This showed that we age pretty linearly,with bouts of acceleration each decade/cumulative wear from oxidative stress and unless we make extreme biological rejuvenation now, by that time it will be very late in the individual's lifespan. Most likely too late, we are hoping that epigenetic reprogramming of cells back to fetal stem cell like state will erase the time and reset the cells' clock genes and predetermined death program, just like what they do with induced pluripotent adult stem cell reprogramming using stem cell factors that recapitulate the stem cell's life and telomere size to immature youth stage. But this avenue is seems therapeutic and not acting or weakly on longevity; but health. Plus these stem cell factors which seem present in the immortal jellyfish stemcell tissues are expressed in immortal tumors and cancers that highjack Telomerase for their telomere-lenghtening immortality and invasion of host.
Cancers are sometimes stemcell like (my mother died of gastric cancer) and as such stay biologically young, immortal. Telomerase is a double edged epee de damocles, yet if we can keep it it is a saviour (just recently studies showed blocking telomerase reduces telomere length a lot, so much so that the oxidative stress overloads the telomere , they become demethylated, weak, short and then 'youth-strong' gene silencing of tallest telomeres stops (activation of bad deleterious genes (p53, TNFa, inflammation, more ROS) when the telomeres reach down to 6kb in height or less.) A study recently showed the Redox GSH GSSG ratio is a major determinant of oxidative stress homeostasis, correlates to Telomerase activity (telomerase is dramatically more active as the redox stabilises/rises. Same thing in these rejuvenated stem cells: telomeres back up to 16kb, very GSH content, very high GSH:GSSG ratio, centenarians have high RBC and albumin GSH levels, GSH:GSSG ratios too. Just recently the leukocyte, lymphocyte WBC telomere length of a 115 year old woman were measured and were at an time low of 4.5 or 5kbs in size. The study said the woman's life and immune system are at the extreme limit of human lifespan, that she was 'pushing it' past her time because her telomeres were so low. Yet, she was still alive but clearly from slow oxidative stress in her she could reach 122 like Jeanne but most likely not as the inflammation at 5kb is massive so she had till 120 left. Slow oxidative stress means maintenance of GSH GSSG ratio constant.Even, the eldest animal onthe planet A.Islandica bivalve from Iceland lives a least 192 up to 508 years old world record for an animal with complex organs. Doris Abele and others showed that this quahog maintains its GSH pools, GSH GSSG ratio constant in its mantle, pedal foot and breathing gills starting from the sexual maturity stabilization period at 25 years old all the way up to 192 years old, GSH GSSG content correlates to mitochondrial DNA lesions and deletion in mice, to the speed and bottleneck of cumulative Lipofuscin, ceroid and other oxidized DNA gunk junk that clogg and destroy cell life(which Ihope dearly SENS will remove from cell on a big scale, without Lipofuscin or AGEs immortality is feasible. Lipofuscin, AGEs (Advanced glycation glycoxydation fructose glucose overload as seen in diabetes an accelerated aging (my father has type II)), Leucocyte and Erythrocytes telomere length, mtDNA lesions 8-oxodG, GSH GSSG oxidized glutathion in part.__ 'All of these correlate to MLSP maximum lifespan and should be thoroughly improved if we want to even just make it like Jeanne did and truly live a fun 300 (something impossible now, but the Redox maintenance is one solution that is proven to control the oxidative stress that is this preprogrammed death program controlled by death-gene activation in shorten telomere gene-space, telomerase is an ally in the immortality and a 2faced jester mutating ennemy in cancer. it's a dosage question, high telomere are a sign of low oxidative stress and high telomerase activity in certain cells, thus no cancers that highjack telomerase at super low 2kb telomere size, excessive oxidative stress made those shorten telomere in the first place and this increased cancer mutation, telomerase mutation and at 2kb telomere size, telomerase highjack by cancer cells) . Thank you!

Posted by: CANanonymity at September 14th, 2015 8:35 PM

de grey's research for life extension is rational, positive and correspondent to the essence of human life.human life is an ongoing process.it must not end in the name of any sterile value.it is futlie to accept death as inevitable. inevitable is chanege and for the positive.through coordination with nature human being has all along change civilization to bring it down toda's state. we have got to go further.

Posted by: prof.dr,mokhdum mushrafi at April 18th, 2016 5:56 AM

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