The SENS approach to the treatment of aging is explicitly engineering, in the sense that engineering is the application of science to produce useful technology in absence of full knowledge of the systems influenced. It is right there in the name: Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence. In fact all medicine is engineering, as no-one yet has access to the full map of cellular biology that would allow for complete knowledge of how any particular therapy actually functions. SENS is merely a particularly obvious example, perhaps because of the great divide that exists in the aging research community.
Firstly, there are those who think that far greater understanding of the progression of aging at the detail level is needed, and that any intervention should be a matter of slowing aging by changing the operation of metabolism. They believe that meaningful progress towards greater human life spans is still remote, and only small gains are possible in our lifetimes, if then. Secondly, on the other side of the divide, there are those who wish to use the known catalog of forms of cell and tissue damage that lie at the root of aging in order to bypass the need for full understand of how aging progresses, and to produce rejuvenation rather than merely a slowing of aging. If damage has no other contributing source than the normal operation of healthy metabolism, then let us just repair it and observe the results - that is how we find out what is relevant and what is not. This is a much more cost-effective approach, but despite tremendous and demonstrable success in the form of senolytic therapies that destroy senescent cells, it remains unpopular as a strategy within the research community.
Damage repair to produce rejuvenation is popular with engineers, however, and for the obvious reasons. People with a technical background can look at the summary above (or more detailed summaries, or the scientific literature on SENS-based approaches to rejuvenation therapies) and find it obviously true that the cheaper, faster path with larger and more reliable gains should be the one receiving the greatest attention. Engineering is all about producing that sort of gain in effectiveness, applying what is known to produce benefits, and understanding where the details matter and where the details do not matter when it comes to development, safety, and efficiency. If researchers can repair a form of damage, such as the accumulation of senescent cells, and show it to be safe, and to produce rejuvenation, then the scientific community can thereafter spend as much time as they like in finding out how exactly it works. Meanwhile, there is a working treatment in existence that can benefit the world.
The software engineering community has long been supportive of the SENS program of advocacy and research. Software engineers make up an outsized proportion of the donors to the SENS Research Foundation and Methuselah Foundation. They appear everywhere in the broader community of supporters; there is a lot of history here if you look back along the timeline of the transhumanist communities of the thirty years past and what has become of those involved since then - also a lot of software engineers. Where the software engineering community overlaps with the venture capital community, particularly in California, there too is a sizable level of support for rejuvenation research after the SENS model. It is no accident that the SENS Research Foundation is based in the Bay Area, California; that is as much connections to capital and support as for the aging research laboratories that are nearby.
An interesting side-effect of this core constituency of support has arisen with the development of blockchain implementations and the cryptocurrency goldrush; suddenly a lot of younger, more idealistic and optimistic software engineers have a lot of wealth, even following the recent bursting of the bubble. When you have wealth you can start to make the world better in the ways that matter to you - if you have the vision and the will, which is something that seems to go with youth more than age, sad to say. it is perhaps a measure of this that the lion's share of donations to the SENS Research Foundation and Methuselah Foundation in the last 18 months have arrived in the form of cryptocurrencies. Indeed, Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin donated $2.4M last year, and has now donated another $350,000 to the present SENS year end fundraiser. Such fellow travelers are greatly appreciated as we strive to make human rejuvenation a reality.
SENS Research Foundation would like to send a huge thank you to Vitalik Buterin for donating $350,000 worth of ethereum to our end of year campaign!
The office of Aubrey de Grey, chief science officer of SENS (short for the very catchy Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence), is my first stop in my journey into the strange and surprisingly overlapping worlds of cryptocurrency and life-extension. But de Grey is not like most tech entrepreneurs, nor is he like most longevity researchers. He doesn't buy into the health fads popular amongst his peers, like calorie restriction. He's not hoarding the blood of spritely teenagers (though tech billionaire Peter Thiel, who may or may not be interested in youthful blood infusions, is a SENS donor). And, while he says that cryonics - in which bodies are preserved at low temperatures - is "an extremely valuable and neglected area of medicine," the whole freezing-and-thawing process is not where his still-beating heart lies.
De Grey's plan is more ambitious than resurrection: He wants to reverse aging all together. As he outlines in his 2007 book Ending Aging, his strategy is to discover therapies that address the "diseases and disabilities of aging." Whereas most biogerontologists focus on the complex metabolic processes that cause aging damage, de Grey argues that the focus should be on the forms of damage themselves - like nuclear mutations, or the intracellular "junk" that forms as we get older. In short: Focus on treating the underlying causes, not the symptoms of aging.
Though he has plenty of critics, de Grey's bold approach has also garnered him scores of devoted fans. As he sits stroking his Rip Van Winkle-worthy beard, it's easy to see how de Grey's achieved this "kind of a spiritual leader status," as he calls it. He dives easily into intricate explanations of two research projects unfolding in the lab down the hall, eagerly describing how one studies mitochondrial mutations, which are thought to cause an increase in oxidative stress. The other looks at atherosclerosis, the narrowing and hardening of artery walls. If we understood more about this buildup, the logic goes, we could better clean it up before too much damage is done.
Though he attends lab meetings and oversees the SENS Research Foundation's research, his primary task is convincing the general public that death is, in fact, bad and that we should be doing everything we can to stop it. This focus on messaging suits him just fine. Back in April, at a San Francisco blockchain conference called Block 2 the Future, de Grey began his talk with a disclaimer: "I probably ought to start by emphasizing that I don't know fuck-all about cryptocurrencies. I am really only here because I have apparently quite a significant fan base in this community, and I am delighted that I do." He was referring to the intertwining relationship between blockchain enthusiasts and life-extension advocates, which can feel less like a Venn diagram and more like overlapping circles. There's a history of members of the blockchain community donating to life-extension efforts. Billionaire and cryptocurrency investor Michael Novogratz donated to the organization that predated SENS in the early 2000s, and the number of cryptocurrency donors has increased exponentially since. In the past year or so, SENS has received more than $6.5 million in cryptocurrency donations, including $2.4 million from Ethereum cofounder Vitalik Buterin last December.
Pine, the anonymous individual behind the Pineapple Fund who donated $55 million worth of bitcoin to various charities last year, gave 2 million of those dollars to SENS. A few other anonymous crypto donors gave around $1 million each, says de Grey. And other cryptocurrency heavy-hitters have long-term involvements with SENS, too. De Grey believes that crypto's philanthropic donors skew younger, like with Buterin, just 24, who became a fan after reading Ending Aging as a teenager. De Grey likes to call this new generation of donors "Children of the Revolution" - and he's called out older people for not doing their part. "It's a huge embarrassment to the kind of wealthy individuals of my age, like Peter Thiel or Jeff Bezos or the Google Twins or whatever, who are ostensibly really supportive of all of this, but who have put very small, if any, proportions of their net worth into supporting it. Peter is a shining example of someone who has put some money in - but let's face it, he could have put more in."
For now, the business of life extension is still a business - even nonprofits like the SENS Research Foundation need to fund their research. Despite the techno-spiritual affinity, the main reason life-extension proponents are regulars on the blockchain circuit is economic: They're chasing crypto's money.