The Life Extension Advocacy Foundation (LEAF) volunteers recently interviewed Didier Coeurnelle of the Healthy Life Extension Society (HEALES), a long-standing advocate on the European side of our community who has promoted research and development of therapies to treat aging for many years now.
Insofar as the treatment of aging goes, we are living through the early stages of an enormously important transition, a tipping point in the progress of medicine. It will be of far greater impact than the advent of antibiotics. The development of rejuvenation therapies, treatments that can reverse or repair or bypass the known root causes of aging, will bring sweeping change and improvement to the human condition. The first legitimate, functioning rejuvenation therapies already exist, senolytic drug candidates that can remove a sizable fraction of senescent cells from old tissues. These drugs are in some cases very cheap, being generic and widely manufactured for other uses, but the world at large has not yet caught up to this point. The millions of older individuals who might benefit from removal of senescent cells do not yet appreciate that with just a modest effort, they could most likely experience significantly improved health, a reduction in the burden of aging.
Nothing happens quickly. It will take time for the realization to percolate. For the human trials to complete and be publicized, and then for people to understand the implications of the results. The usual suspects are ahead of the wave, by which I mean some researchers, some self-experimenters, some venture capitalists, some advocates. Their job at the present time is still largely to persuade everyone else, the people who will one day be customers, developers, and investors. An enormous industry is waiting in the wings to come into being. It will ultimately provide the majority of all medicine and medical services, approaches that will control the progression of aging and put an end to age-related disease. It is inevitable, but the necessary steps along this road are running all too slowly, for reasons that have little to do with the technology and everything to do with human nature.
You have been an advocate for quite some time now; how successful do you think collective advocacy efforts have been over the years?
Not enough yet and not fast enough. The "pro-aging" narrative is, sadly, powerful. Defeating aging looks "too good to be true" and makes people feel uneasy. However, there are changes. For example, in the French-speaking world, sometimes we see articles about "amortalité" (life without senescence) in the press; a few years ago, you would see only articles speculating about billionaires wanting "immortality" (which makes people afraid).
I think most scientists wanting big progress for longevity know that having public opinion on our side will help. Also, PR is useful in order to raise money. However, many scientists feel uneasy about these issues. That's why we decided to have a day dedicated to social aspects. Not all scientists will stay for the last day, and we will also try to reach a larger public on the last day. Another aspect is that Brussels is the European capital. One of our goals is to convince people there. Let's be honest: there is a long way to go. However, for a year or two now, some European civil servants who have been promoting "healthy aging" (we know it is an oxymoron) seem to be very interested in big data on health and scientific research. We will be keeping an eye on these developments.
You don't need to convince people that saving the lives of children is a good thing to do; however, you do need to convince them that saving elderly lives is a good thing. Why do you think this difference exists?
Nor do you need to convince people that defeating cancer or Alzheimer's disease would be good, but death by old age is a step too far. For me, the fundamental reason is a variant of Stockholm syndrome called the terror management theory. Death by old age is awful and unavoidable. We must think that longevity is not better, otherwise it would be too awful to die. This process is unconscious.
How far do you think we are from the point when people won't need persuading anymore, if ever?
Aubrey de Grey said it will be when a mouse becomes "immortal", because people will feel that rejuvenation therapies will be available soon. I think that it could be sooner if more and more scientists start to speak out more about it.
With some luck, the effects of first-generation rejuvenation therapies, such as senolytics, will be tangible soon. Assuming that the effects are measurably positive, how do you think the world will react to the news, and how do you think that this will affect advocacy?
It would be interesting even if senolytics have only a moderate effect. I think some groups who are not in the "longevity camp" will start asking to use them. Maybe, in some countries, they will even start asking for reimbursement from social security programs. Some groups on the other side will probably ask not to use these products or will stress risks, but it will be especially difficult for "deathists" to fight against senolytics, which are, in a way, very classical drugs.