A Lengthy Interview with Aubrey de Grey of the SENS Research Foundation

I would hope that by now Aubrey de Grey needs no introduction to the Fight Aging! readership. He is the co-founder of the Methuselah Foundation and SENS Research Foundation, originator of the SENS rejuvenation research programs, and tireless advocate for greater investment into the scientific foundations of near-future radical life extension. While history never depends on any single individual, it is hard to envisage the first decades of this century in aging research without the presence of de Grey and the broad network of allies surrounding his work. Given the sorry state of the research community prior to de Grey, it needed the entry of outsiders willing to kick shins and push the agenda of intervention in aging. Absent that forcing function, progress towards the treatment of aging as a medical condition would have continued to be missing in action, suppressed by the leaders of the scientific and funding institutions.

But this is old news now. Our community of advocates, scientists, and other parties interesting in living longer, healthier lives through medical science is growing apace. Many of the newcomers missed out entirely on the long years of bootstrapping a movement; being told that rejuvenation was neither plausible or possible; being treated as a strange, fringe concern by the media. (Frankly, I've always thought that it is the people who claim to want to age and die on a schedule who need to explain themselves - but sadly there is no status quo so odd or so terrible that it will go unaccepted and undefended). That rejuvenation is possible and plausible is now evident, based on the advent of senolytic therapies to selectively remove senescent cells. The naysayers are much less vocal than they were five or ten years ago, silenced by the progress of applied science.

Thus, having climbed a mountain and found a great many new friends along the way, we must now turn to the next mountain. More climbing is the prize for having climbed such a long way already. Looking ahead, there is still much to build, technologies fundamental to human rejuvenation that can be described in detail but are not yet complete in the laboratory. There are many people in the world at large still to convince that rejuvenation is a real near term prospect. The initially expensive therapies must be crushed down in cost. The initially cheap therapies must be widely distributed. There is an yet industry to build, one that will grow to become the majority of all medicine later in this century.

Dr. Aubrey de Grey - SENS Research Foundation

Do you think there are disproportionately many people from computer science in aging research these days?

There are a lot, and there are lots of people who are supporting it. Most of our supporters are, in one way or another, people from computer science or from mathematics, engineering, or physics. I think the reason why that has happened is actually very similar to the reason why I was able to make an important contribution to this field. I think that people with that kind of background, that kind of training, find it much easier to understand how we should be thinking about aging: as an engineering problem. First of all, we must recognize that it is a problem, and then we must recognize that it is a problem that we could solve with technology. This is something that most people find very alien, very difficult to understand, but engineers seem to get it more easily.

Can you give a bit more background on when you founded SENS and what SENS is?

The year in which I switched fields from computer science properly is probably 1995. For the next five years, I was basically just learning. The big breakthrough came in the summer of 2000 when I realized that comprehensive damage repair was a much more promising option then what people had been doing before. Since then, it has been a matter of persuading people of that. There were a few years when I was just ignored and people thought I was crazy and didn't think I made any sense. Then, gradually, people realized that what I was saying was not necessarily crazy. Some people found it threatening, so in the mid-2000s, I had a fair amount of battles to fight within academia. That's normal; that's what happens with any radical new idea that is actually right, so that happened for a while. This decade, it's been rather easier. We founded the SENS Research Foundation; we've started getting enough donations into the SENS Research Foundation to be able to do our own research, both within our own facilities as well as funding research at universities and institutes. Gradually, this research had moved far along enough that we could publish initial results. Over the past two or three years, we've been able to spin off a bunch of companies that we have transferred technology to so that they can actually attract money from investors.

Why do so few people have a sense of urgency that we need to do everything possible to combat aging within our lifetimes and not centuries to follow?

There are two answers to that. The David Botstein answer, the Calico answer, is that they just don't understand the idea of knowing enough. People who work on basic science understand how to find things out, but that's all they understand. For them, the best questions to work on are the questions whose answers will simply create new questions. Their purpose in life is to create new questions rather than to use the answers for a humanitarian benefit. They don't object to humanitarian benefit, but they regard it as not their problem. You can't change that. Botstein is a fantastic scientist, but he's in the wrong job at Calico.

The other part of your question, why people, in general, do not regard aging with a sense of urgency, has a different answer. People weigh up the desirability and the feasibility. Remember that everyone has been brought up to believe that aging is inevitable, I mean completely inevitable in the sense that stopping it would be like creating perpetual motion. If the probability of doing something about this thing is zero, then the desirability doesn't matter anymore. So, under that assumption, we really ought to put it out of our minds and get on with our miserably short lives. That's all we can do. It is learned helplessness, and it's a perfectly reasonable, rational thing to be thinking until a plan comes along that can actually solve the problem. That only happened quite recently.

The more interesting question is when will humanity actually conquer aging?

It all depends on how rapidly research goes, and that depends on money. Which is why when people ask me, "What can I do today to maximize my chances of living healthy and for a long time?" I tell them to write me a large check. It's the only thing one can do right now. The situation right now is that everything we have today - no matter how many books are written about this or that diet or whatever - is that basically, we have nothing over and above just doing what your mother told you: in other words, not smoking, not getting seriously overweight, and having a balanced diet. If you adhere to the obvious stuff, you are doing pretty much everything that we can do today. The additional amount that you can get from just any kind of supplement regime, diet, or whatever is tiny. The thing to do is hasten the arrival of therapy for the betterment of what we have today. That's where the check comes in.

Do you see any increase in funding for longevity research over the past 10 years?

Things have certainly improved. I mean, there's more money coming into the foundation, a little bit more money, but there's a lot more money coming into the private sector, into the companies I mentioned and other companies that have emerged in parallel with us. The overall funding for rejuvenation biotechnology has increased a lot in the past few years, and we need it to increase a lot more. The private sector can't do everything, not yet, anyway. There will come a time when SENS Research Foundation will be able to declare victory and say, "Listen, everything that needs to be done is being done well enough in the private sector that we no longer need to exist." For the moment, that's not true. For the moment, there are still quite a few areas in SENS that are at the pre-investable stage where only philanthropy will allow them to progress to the point where they are investable.

Comments

I am curious if there is a graph that shows money coming to SENS and spinoffs over time. That could give some food for projections of when we can get to the first therapy (apart from senolitics, of course)

Posted by: cuberat at July 30th, 2018 5:49 PM

I'm looking forward to seeing if Revel's glucosepane breaking enzyme has any cosmetic effect on aged skin.

Posted by: Jim at July 31st, 2018 2:49 AM

I wonder what SENS areas are more in need of philanthropic money now. ALT research perhaps?

Posted by: Antonio at July 31st, 2018 5:25 AM

Which SENS product(s) will be useful for the estimated 300 million people who have some type of auto-immune disease?

Posted by: DonnaD MS Lady at July 31st, 2018 6:07 AM

@Antonio: Definitely ALT research. Anything that needs a big small molecule screening program to start with is a poor candidate for commercial development and better suited for the lab. Also the remaining mitochondrial genes for allotopic expression.

Posted by: Reason at July 31st, 2018 6:41 AM

@Jim, yeah, of course, that will! Not so much, because there are other causes -- but visible.

Posted by: Ariel at July 31st, 2018 9:12 AM

@Antonio, @Reason, maybe WILT and lipofuscin because for now there is no ANY ongoing research in this area. As for lipofuscin researchers even don't know what that is exactly!

Posted by: Ariel at July 31st, 2018 9:17 AM

@Ariel: Well, ALT is part of WILT. The other parts (telomerase, gene therapy and stem cells) have much more funding, I think.

Posted by: Antonio at July 31st, 2018 10:32 AM

There are actually a bunch of ongoing ALT projects, and this is one of the reasons that the SRF shut down their own. Also, former OncoSENS lead scientist, Haroldo Silva, seems to be involved with a possible startup called ALTerran that is aiming to develop therapeutics for ALT cancers.

https://www.fightaging.org/archives/2017/11/a-demonstration-in-which-cellular-senescence-is-reversed/#comment-29385
https://califesciences.org/clsi-sens-research-foundation-launch-rejuvenation-biology-collaboration/

Posted by: Florin Clapa at July 31st, 2018 12:05 PM

I think biologists and geneticists will remain the core of the advance against aging. I see little help from physics and engineering. Computers are of course of utmost importance to all of us.

Posted by: Biotechy Marcks at July 31st, 2018 12:09 PM

@Biotechy , remember that all equipment are based on physics and created by engineers. Also, not biologists but bioengineers do rej bio research.

Posted by: Ariel at July 31st, 2018 12:18 PM

@Ariel: I should have stressed 3-D computing ill play a large part in the future of aging to produce parts, robots, etc. thus supplant physics and bioengineering in large part. Of course, chemistry will still play an important role in antiaging in the future. Just my thoughts.

Posted by: Biotechy Marcks at July 31st, 2018 1:43 PM

About the wealthy prefering to invest rather than do philanthropy : now that the SRF has spun off some of it research, with maybe more spin offs in the futures, wouldn't it be nice if the Google billionaires invested in such companies ?

They don't want to fund the SRF directly, but if they funded one of its spin off, they could potentially make money off it, and the SRF would benefit too by seeing its goal being accelerated and possibly getting some funds back through the shares it owns.

Posted by: Spede at July 31st, 2018 5:37 PM

Spede,
It is a bit 🐔 chicken and the egg problem. Once the first spinoff becomes successful or promising enough (btw how can I invest in Oisin?) There will be investors willing to invest not only in this particular spinoff but in all potential ventures at the earliest phases. They will attract attention and sometimes funds too.

Posted by: Cuberat at July 31st, 2018 8:59 PM

Post a comment; thoughtful, considered opinions are valued. Comments incorporating ad hominem attacks, advertising, and other forms of inappropriate behavior are likely to be deleted.

Note that there is a comment feed for those who like to keep up with conversations.