In this interview, Aubrey de Grey of the SENS Research Foundation discusses the present state of rejuvenation biotechnology. The first rejuvenation therapies now exist, these being the various methods of selectively removing senescent cells that de Grey and others called for back in 2002. The world is finally catching up to the vision of rejuvenation therapies that our community has advocated for more than fifteen years. Now that we are finally here, there is, if anything, even more work to be accomplished than was the case in past years. The funding for clinical development exists, but it is still true that many lines of work relevant to rejuvenation are moving too slowly in the laboratory, or in the transition to for-profit development. There is much left to do if we are to build the means of radical life extension in our lifetimes.
Can you compare 2018 to 2017 or early years? What is changing?
2018 was a fantastic year for rejuvenation biotechnology. The main thing that made it special was the explosive growth of the private-sector side of the field - the number of startup companies, the number of investors, and the scale of investment. Two companies, AgeX Therapeutics and Unity Biotechnology, went public with nine-digit valuations, and a bunch of others are not far behind. Of course this has only been possible because of all the great progress that has been made in the actual science, but one can never predict when that slow, steady progress will reach "critical mass".
In 2017 SENS RF have received about $7 million. What has been accomplished in 2018?
We received almost all of that money right around the end of 2017, in the form of four cryptocurrency donations of $1 million or more, totalling about $6.5 million. We of course realised that this was a one-off windfall, so we didn't spend it all at once! The main things we have done are to start a major new project at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, focused on stem cell therapy for Alzheimer's, and to broaden our education initiative to include more senior people.
What breakthroughs of 2018 can you name as the most important by your choice?
On the science side, well, regarding our funded work I guess I would choose our progress in getting mitochondrial genes to work when relocated to the nucleus. We published a groundbreaking progress report at the end of 2016, but to be honest I was not at all sure that we would be able to build quickly on it. I'm delighted to say that my caution was misplaced, and that we've continued to make great advances. The details will be submitted for publication very soon.
You say that many rejuvenating therapies will work in clinical trials within five years. Do you mean first - maybe incomplete - rejuvenation panel, when you speak on early 2020?
Yes, basically. SENS is a divide-and-conquer approach, so we can view it in three overlapping phases. The first phase is to get the basic concept accepted and moving. The second phase is to get the most challenging components moving. And the third phase is to combine the components. Phase 1 is pretty much done. Phase 2 is beginning, but it's at an early stage. Phase 3 will probably not even properly begin for a few more years. That's why I still think we only have about a 50% chance of getting to longevity escape velocity by 2035 or so.
Is any progress in the OncoSENS program? Have you found any alternative lengthening of telomeres (ALT) genes? Is there any ongoing research in WILT?
No - in the end that program was not successful enough to continue with, so we stopped it. There is now more interest in ALT in other labs than there was, though, so I'm hopeful that progress will be made. But also, one reason why I felt that it was OK to stop was that cancer immunotherapy is doing so well now. I think there is a significant chance that we won't need WILT after all, because we will really truly defeat cancer using the immune system.