An Interview with Aubrey de Grey at Undoing Aging 2019

The Life Extension Advocacy Foundation (LEAF) volunteers were out in force at the recent Undoing Aging conference in Berlin, networking and conducting interviews. The event was a who's who of the rejuvenation research and broader longevity science communities. These are in fact two different things: despite the growing focus on senolytics to clear senescent cells from aged tissues, work on methods of rejuvenation after the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) model of damage repair is still something of a minority concern embedded within a broader field that is much more concerned with stress response upregulation via calorie restriction mimetics and similar approaches. If the goal is an end to aging as soon as possible, then want to see more rejuvenation capable in principle of large, reliable gains in health and life expectancy, and less tinkering with metabolism that is only capable in principle of small, unreliable gains in health and life expectancy. In this context, it doesn't hurt that central, important events like Undoing Aging are organized by people with a strong rejuvenation focus.

LEAF will be publishing any number of interviews in the weeks ahead, and today's example is an interview with one of the hosts of Undoing Aging, Aubrey de Grey of the SENS Research Foundation. I feel that by now de Grey should require little introduction. For the past fifteen years or more, he has been one of the most vocal proponents of tackling aging as a medical condition, in particularly by developing therapies to repair, reverse, or work around the root causes of aging. Quite early on, de Grey assessed the literature and proposed a set of research programs that would tackle all of the forms of molecular damage and cell dysfunction that cause aging. This was an extensive work of synthesis, drawing together strands of research from throughout the life science community that had, up until that point, been given all too little attention. It has been a long road from the stage of a few voices in the wilderness to today's realization of the first actual, real, working rejuvenation therapies, in the form of senolytics. Nonethless, here we are, finally.

An Interview with Dr. Aubrey de Grey

How has SENS been progressing over the years, and what's going on right now?

The idea of comprehensive damage repair as a way to really bring aging under proper medical control and keep people useful much later in life has now become completely mainstream. It's been kind of reinvented by various groups over the past few years so that now it's kind of become the orthodox way of thinking. Moreover, the progress that's been made in the laboratory by, of course, us with our various projects, and also by other people, has got to the point where these projects have become investable. They've got to the point where people, perhaps not every investor, but at least the more visionary investors who are comfortable with high-risk, high-reward activities, are getting in there. They're seeing how to join the dots as a value proposition. The result is that we've, so far, over the past few years, been able to spin out half a dozen of our projects into startup companies and align in parallel with us. There's dozens and dozens more companies coming along literally once a week, now, it's ridiculous how rapidly, that are doing stuff that is very much rejuvenation, very much damage repair.

In terms of the seven deadly things that SENS plans to tackle, could you give us some examples of where we are specifically for each of them or some of them?

The best news at the level of SENS Research Foundation is that the most challenging, the most difficult components of SENS are now beginning to yield. We're really now seeing very significant, dramatic progress, albeit still early stage, but going much faster than it was even a couple of years ago. The ones that are slightly less hard, for example, the removal of molecular waste products inside cells, those things have gone far enough that they have become spin-off companies. We've got two companies created that way: we've got a company that's looking at the extracellular stiffening problem of restoring elasticity, and we've got a company looking at death-resistant cells, cells that are getting into a senescent state. This is all going amazingly well.

For the most difficult things, in which I will especially include mitochondrial mutations, we're now undisputedly the world leaders in these areas. These are lines of research that everyone had totally given up on to the point of being really certain that they were completely impossible and would never make progress. We just had the persistence to do enough to get there. It really is a great example of how the short term-ism that is imposed upon scientists by the system of science funding that exists worldwide has had an enormously damaging effect in stopping people from working on the most valuable work and forcing them to work on low-hanging fruit that doesn't scale.

As a final question, how do you like how the conference is going?

The main thing that I've got to say about this particular conference that blows my mind is the sheer number of people that are here. We have run conferences starting with my own conferences back in 2003. We've run lots and lots of them over the years, and they never grow; my first conference back in '03, had maybe 200, 250 people, and all the other ones that I ran, that series in Cambridge, were about the same, fluctuating by 20 or so. We were not seeing any increase in enthusiasm, and so on, resulting from the work that was being done. That was the same with the conferences that we ran in California in the period like 2014 through '17. It was also true for conferences that other people have run, they started but they're not grown.

Now, we may be just hitting that point where it's take-off time. Last year, the first time that the Berlin Conference happened, the first one in Europe in five years since my last conference in 2013 in Cambridge, and it was big. It was 300 people; that's on the high side. I thought, well, that's great, but it's probably just because I haven't done one in Europe for five years. I was thinking this year, they'll do really well to keep it at 300 people, and we sold out, which is 500 people; we literally were not allowed to bring any more people in because of the size of the venue and the fire regulations and so on.