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.
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.