Aubrey de Grey of the SENS Research Foundation was back again to present to rank and file Google employees recently as a part of the Talks at Google series. The SENS perspective on aging is easy to summarize at the high level: aging is caused by accumulated molecular damage in cells and tissues; here is the evidence-supported list of types of damage; here are a set of ways to repair that damage, all of which could be constructed in a decade or two given the funding. It is an engineer's view of aging as a harmful phenomenon that should be fixed, with the high priority given to that fix derived from the fact that aging causes more suffering and death, by far, than any other part of the human condition. That SENS is as much straightforward, logical engineering as scientific research probably explains why members of the software engineering community have, right from the start, made up a sizable fraction of those who helped to fund SENS research. It resonates: break down the problem to its roots, assemble the facts, assess them, act on them.
Aubrey de Grey, Chief Science Officer, presents the SENS Research Foundation's current research into therapies that may add decades of healthy life for people who are adults today, as well as work that the Foundation has already spun out into successful startups. Dr. de Grey also explains how SRF's work fits within the context of the global anti-aging research effort and why it has gained broad expert support.
As de Grey points out in the talk here, if this is so straightforward, why does he have to tour the world canvassing support for the cause of rejuvenation research? There are two categories of challenge here. The first is that the bulk of the scientific community will not on their own initiative raise funds to work on most lines of rejuvenation research, at least not until it is obvious beyond refutation that a particular approach will work - which means animal studies showing significant, reliable life extension at a minimum. It is an exceeding conservative, risk-averse community. Look at senescent cell research before and after the 2011 demonstration of extended life in progeroid animals through destruction of senescent cells, for example. Before that point, there was next to no funding, and very few researchers made any effort to look into this area, despite the fact that decades of evidence strongly supported a role for cellular senescence as a cause of aging. The study itself was funded via philanthropy, rejected by the established funding institutions. In the few years afterwards, an avalanche of interest and funding arrived, leading to senolytic drug candidates and the present brace of startups bringing rejuvenation through senescent cell clearance to the clinic.
But that still leaves numerous lines of rejuvenation research that are just as promising, just as likely to produce sizable effects on health and reversal of aging, and yet the research community largely ignores them. Glucosepane cross-link breaking to reverse loss of tissue elasticity, for example. The philanthropy of the SENS Research Foundation and related groups is the only reason there is any significant progress in these areas - yet as soon as the first studies are in hand to show significant results on animal aging, exactly the same will occur there as did for senescent cell clearance. All it takes is sufficient funding to build the first technology demonstrations.
The second form of challenge is that the public at large is not engaged in any way with their future decline via aging. People react poorly to being directly challenged on aging as a source of pain, misery, and death. They deploy environmentalist and class envy arguments against deploying medicine to help turn back aging and lengthen life, while at the same time supporting causes such as cancer research or Alzheimer's research. Which is exactly the same thing under the hood! Few individuals argue for a halt to cancer research because too few people are dying and too many people are living longer, or because some people will get the treatments before others, and yet the average fellow in the street might well respond with concern on the topic of treating aging as a medical condition, exactly because there would be less suffering, less death, or because the third world will not immediately benefit.
All told, strange confusions and misapprehensions regarding aging and the potential to reverse aging are widespread out there. People mistakenly believe that therapies will be so expensive as to be restricted to the elite. Or that therapies will maintain people in a state of increasing decrepitude rather than making patients younger and healthier for longer. Or that resources will run out if people live even a little longer. This manifests in practice as a lack of readily available philanthropic funding at larger scales, needed to solve the first challenge noted above, the production of technology demonstrations to persuade the scientific community. We all have to work a lot harder than is the case for other, related causes in medicine to fund the early stage rejuvenation research needed to turn back the causes of aging. This is why we must conduct advocacy for the cause.