Aubrey de Grey administers the scientific programs at the SENS Research Foundation, and is a leading figure in the rejuvenation research community and newly formed longevity industry. Here find a transcript of his present commentary on the state of rejuvenation research, lightly tailored for delivery to an audience of effective altruists. Effective altruism is a useful movement, I feel, if nothing else for the pressure that advocates might bring to bear on the corruption and ineffectiveness of much of present day institutional philanthropy. Further, while it might seem self-evident to much of the Fight Aging! audience that the most efficient use of charitable donations, if one aims to reduce suffering in the world, is to fund rejuvenation research programs, the public at large is still far removed drawing this same conclusion. More persuasion is needed, and effective altruists are already engaged in exactly that sort of effort.
The effective altruism community has a culture of running the numbers and arguing from data, and this is attached to a culture of advocacy for their view on how to conduct philanthropy in a more efficient way. Once one starts to run the numbers and argue from data, it is quite hard to avoid the conclusion that aging is by far the worst problem affecting humanity, and thus working to treat aging, in an era in which this is a plausible goal, is by far the most effective form of philanthropy. Aging is the greatest cause of suffering and death in the world, far more so than even infectious disease, war, and poverty. Given this, effective altruists have the potential to become vocal advocates for the cause of human rejuvenation.
What I'm going to do today is try to explain why I believe it makes sense for effective altruists (EAs) to prioritize the issue of aging. To make that case, there are a number of questions that need to be answered in the affirmative. First, is aging a really big problem? I believe that it is, by a good distance, the world's biggest problem. But I understand that this group thinks very carefully about such statements, so I need to justify my opinion. The second argument I need to make is that we have a sufficient understanding today of what aging is, and generally how we might go about addressing it. Therefore, if we throw money at this problem, there's a good chance of having a significant impact. This is not trivial. Other times that I've spoken at EA events, I've received a lot of pushback. Many EAs believe we understand so little about aging that what we do at the SENS Research Foundation is essentially random, and therefore spending money on it is unjustified. The third argument I need to make is very new. It's really only arisen over the past few years, and it is this: philanthropy is still critical, even though private investment in the study of aging has exploded.
To address the first point - why aging is important - I'm just going to tell you why I think that is clearly true. To me, it's just a fact that aging causes far more suffering than anything else in the world today or in the foreseeable future. It's not just the death part. We're talking about effective altruism here, and altruism means worrying about other people. People dying makes other people unhappy. That's not arguable. But what might be much more important is that when people die of aging, they do it slowly. They do it as a consequence of a chronic, progressive accumulation of damage in the body, a decline in mental and physical function. So, to me, it's self-evident that aging is, by far, the source of the largest amount of suffering in the world today. You could even argue that it was true a long time ago.
Now I'm going to address the second question. In order to do that, I'm going to fill in a lot of background information. Aging is the combination of two processes, metabolism and damage, which together result in pathology. A network of processes keeps us alive - that's what metabolism means - and, over time, generates damage. Currently, the overwhelming majority of money and effort spent to prevent the pathologies of late life is spent wrongly. It is spent on trying to break the link between damage and pathology. Damage, by definition, is accumulating, which means that efforts to stop it from causing pathology are bound to become progressively less effective as someone gets older. It's obvious. What we might be able to do is separate the component processes of metabolism and damage from each other. That's the maintenance approach - it's damage repair. We might be able to periodically repair some of the damage that metabolism generates, so that even though it continues to generate it, the damage does not reach a level of abundance that causes pathology. I think it is reasonable to call this the common sense alternative.
Seventeen years ago, I described the damage of aging in only seven words, as seven types of damage: cell loss or atrophy, division-obsessed cells, death-resistant cells, mitochondrial mutations, intracellular waste products, extracellular waste products, extracellular matrix stiffening. What's most important is the fact that for each of these types of damage, we can describe a generic therapy that could potentially represent the maintenance approach - the way to repair this type of damage. However, one thing I want to emphasize is that I'm not the only one saying this anymore. Five or 10 years ago, this was an argument that still needed to be made. But now it has been made. As an illustration, the Hallmarks of Aging paper came out only six years ago, and will be by far the most highly-cited paper this decade in the whole of the biology of aging. It's simply a restatement of what I said more than a decade earlier. The important point is that a divide-and-conquer, damage-repair approach is now a completely mainstream, orthodox idea.
On the the third point, that philanthropy still matters despite the growth of a longevity industry, SENS Research Foundation views itself these days as the engine room of that industry. We work on early-stage projects for as long as it takes to establish sufficient proof of concept to spin them out into startup companies. We're not the only ones. The Longevity Research Institute (LRI) is a new organization that's working in a more narrowly defined space. But they may grow, and, of course, there are going to be other organizations like this. Philanthropy matters enormously in this. We believe that we can get all - or at least almost all - of the key technologies in rejuvenation biotechnology into clinical trials within a few years. But the key point here is that the things being funded effectively by the private sector are the low-hanging fruit. And damage repair is an inherently divide-and-conquer concept. You can't just focus on the low-hanging fruit. You've got to address all of the components. It's more important than ever to make progress on the most difficult areas, and that is still a goal for philanthropy.