An interview with Aubrey de Grey of the SENS Research Foundation appears in the latest edition of the Actuary. This is in connection with forthcoming appearances at actuarial conferences, something that has long been a regular occurrence in de Grey's schedule as one of the more important advocates for rejuvenation research. The actuarial community is a good target for all advocacy relating to aging research, not least because they are already half-way bridging the gap with their own projects, aiming to better quantify the prospects for extended life spans through progress in medical science.
The profession of actuary is a node that connects medicine as practiced today, medical research and development for tomorrow, and the staggering sums of money that move through the global insurance and pensions industries. They are among the most ready to hear the story that great uncertainty lies ahead for the trend of increasing life expectancy, with the potential for radical gains should rejuvenation research programs like SENS move to the next stage of funding and pace of progress. SENS or something like it will happen, but the timing is very uncertain because the bootstrapping process that ends with taking over the medical mainstream is still in its early stages. At this point a couple of rejuvenation technologies are in early commercial development, but research funding is sparse for the rest and they remain years away from realization even if all goes well. The other uncertainty is that no-one has yet deployed SENS-like therapies based on repair of damage in humans: the effectiveness of the first of these, such as senescent cell clearance, at the outset, or five years in, or after a decade of improvements, is a question mark. One of them could add five or ten years to human life expectancy, a very large outcome for a treatment undertaken every few years, or it could improve health but do nothing meaningful to life span because other causes of aging lead people to die on about the same schedule.
While far from all actuaries are paragons of rationality when it comes to rejuvenation research and the prospects for change, a sizable fraction have become increasingly willing to hedge their predictions over the past decade, and industry voices have warned that a time of uncertainty lies ahead. Technological progress, and the great sweeping change now underway in the research community, from trying to patch over the consequences of aging to trying to repair the causes of aging, will make twenty year and longer life expectancy trend predictions meaningless. Actuaries have been speaking on this topic for some time now, but it isn't a message happily received in all quarters. Change in the insurance industry will come but slowly, and there will no doubt be entirely unnecessary chaos and destruction as we progress towards the medical control of aging and the greatly increased healthy longevity that will accompany it. No tears should be shed for that outcome, achieved by those betting against progress, save for the fact that losses will no doubt be socialized and the taxpayers will wind up footing the bill.Lifelong learning
Dr Aubrey de Grey is a prominent biomedical gerontologist and chief science officer of the SENS Research Foundation. He is editor-in-chief of Rejuvenation Research, a Fellow of both the Gerontological Society of America and the American Aging Association, and sits on the editorial and scientific advisory boards of numerous journals and organisations. "You know, people have this crazy concept that ageing is natural and inevitable, and I have to keep explaining that it is not." His views on ageing are simple. "The human body is a machine with moving parts and like a car or an aeroplane, it accumulates damage throughout life as a consequence of normal operation."
Historically, efforts to postpone the ill health of old age have focused on finding ways to clean up our metabolism so that we accumulate damage to the body more slowly. About 15 years ago, de Grey had a 'Eureka!' moment upon realising that the most practical way to achieve this would be to find ways to repair the damage rather than looking to slow it down. "I realised we can classify different types of genetic damage into seven major categories, for each of which there is a different repair approach". This is the focus of the SENS Research Foundation. "We have all these diverse projects across various strands of research that we think need to be done, and because we are an independent non-profit charity, we have the luxury of being able to work on the hardest problems."
Although some of his views are met with scepticism and disbelief, he feels that the scientific community is become more accepting of his ideas, citing a recent breakthrough publication in one of the world's leading scientific academic publications. "As time goes on, our progress becomes more significant in proving the feasibility of my ideas. When I first started talking about these, people found them heretical and there was a lot of denigration from the scientific community, but I've gradually won them over. Other people are also making progress in actually implementing what we're doing. Just recently, an important US paper came out that showed you could extend the lifespan of mice using a particular type of damage repair that we'd been talking about for a decade."
If de Grey's predications are solid, what does he think this means for the actuarial profession? "I sympathise with the actuarial profession, because the fact is, the people who pay you to do your jobs really don't want to know the truth." Obviously, if his predictions come to fruition, there would be enormous implications for our industry; life and pensions in particular. Giant changes in life expectancy are likely to spark a renegotiation of pension contracts, as well as the way we approach our healthcare system, state benefit system and provide insurance. De Grey refused to be drawn on the wider impact that successfully achieving his goals could have, commenting: "I think it is foolish to speculate on what society is going to be like, even in 20 years, let alone 200 years from now. So many things are going to be different. The only thing we can do is prepare for as many alternative possibilities and consider how we might minimise any problems that might be created as a consequence of solving the problem of ageing." He believes dwelling on the bioethical considerations is missing the point: "We have to recognise that the problem we have today is enormous. Therefore it's critical not to be intimidated by the prospect that we have too many people, or living longer might be boring, and not let those considerations actually slow us down in terms of the development of medicines that get ageing under control."
De Grey readily admits that the likelihood of his research successfully extending his own lifetime is low. "As for any pioneering technology, the timeframe is extraordinarily speculative. Nobody has the faintest idea how long it's going to take. I put it at 20-25 years from now when we have a 50-50 chance of getting to a decisive level of comprehensiveness that works, which I've called longevity escape velocity. If we do get there by then, I've got a fair chance of benefiting. But I have absolutely no doubt there's at least a 10% chance we won't get there for another 100 years because we hit new problems that we haven't thought of. So if I look at my own personal prospects, or the prospects of any other particular person, the timelines and uncertainty result in this all being very speculative."