Aubrey de Grey is the co-founder of the SENS Research Foundation, a non-profit organization focused on speeding up development of the biotechnologies needed for human rejuvenation. The underlying model behind the research programs funded is that aging is caused by forms of cell and tissue damage that are currently well defined and understood. Periodic repair of that damage will allow for effective treatment of age-related disease and ultimately indefinite extension of healthy life spans. The only thing separating us from rejuvenation therapies is the matter of building the necessary treatments, a process of a few decades all told were it adequately funded - which is, sadly, still not the case, and one of the reasons why advocacy and grassroots fundraising is so important.
THE INSIGHT: That leads me into the next question: Google has created the California Life Company (Calico), the hedge-fund billionaire Joon Yun has launched the Palo Alto Longevity Prize, so there seems to be a lot of movement in this area. What I'm really fascinated by is - a lot of people are investing a lot of time and money into this area of defeating ageing - if you do implement this 7-stage plan and you see breakthroughs in this area, what's to say that something else, some other large obstacle, doesn't come up? Are you relatively sure that if this 7-stage plan is implemented it will create an open passageway for a longer life?
AUBREY DE GREY: That's a great question. I'm going to give a slightly complicated answer to it - really a two-part answer: the point about the approach that we're taking now is that it's based on this classification of the types of damage that occur in the body and eventually contribute to ill health of old age - classification into seven major categories - and that classification is important because within each category we have a generic approach, a generic therapeutic strategy that should be able to work against every example within that category. So, then your question really divides into two questions. The first question is: are we going to identify new types of damage that fit into the existing classification? The second part of your question is: are we going to find new types of damage that don't fit into the classification - type number 8, and so on?
The answer to the first question is: absolutely, we're going to find more of those; we've been seeing more of those turn-up over the years - throughout the time that I've been working in this area. But, the fact that they fit into the classification means that they're not a problem. It means that, yes, we're going to have to carry on developing additional therapies to address these additional types of damage, but that's kind of okay, because the difficulty of developing those additional therapies will be very slight as a result of the fact that they will be minor variations of the therapies that we already developed to address the examples of that category, that we already knew about.
So, now we move onto the second part of the question, of are we going to identify damage-type number 8, and so on - ones that don't fit into the classification. That's a very important question, but the evidence is looking very good that it's not going to happen. First of all, we can just look and say, "Has it happened anytime recently?" and the answer is absolutely not. SENS has been around for 15 years and, in fact, all of the types of damage that SENS discusses have been well studied and known about for more than 30 years. That's a very long time for nothing to be discovered that breaks the classification.
THE INSIGHT: Have you at any point in your career had an anxious response from governments about your work, like it being a national security threat?
AUBREY DE GREY: No, the government don't behave in that way, because everyone in the government is caught in this trap that I talk about so often, where they're desperate to continue to pretend that any talk of radical life extension is just science-fiction; they don't want to think about it. The reason they don't want to think about it is the reason why the general public don't want to think about it and the reason why quite a lot of scientists don't want to think about it: namely, they don't want to get their hopes up. They really don't want to reengage a psychological battle that they have already lost, that they have already submitted to. They have already made their peace with ageing and the inevitability of declining health, old-age and eventual death; getting into a mode of thinking where maybe science will come along and prevent that from happening or maybe it wont, that's a mindset that disturbs a lot of people; that's a mindset a lot of people would prefer not to even engage in, if the alternative is to continue to believe that the whole thing is science-fiction. It's fatalistic but it's calming.
THE INSIGHT: I'm interested in the psychology of people, I guess you can put them into two camps: one doesn't have an inherent understanding of what you're doing or saying, and the other camp willingly resign themselves to living a relatively short life. You've talked to a whole wealth of people and come across many counter-opinions, have any of them had any merit to you, have any of them made you take a step back and question your approach?
AUBREY DE GREY: Really, no. It's quite depressing. At first, really, I was my own only affective critic for the feasibility - certainly never a case or example of an opinion that amounted to a good argument against the desirability of any of this work; that was always 100% clear to me, that it would be crazy to consider this to be a bad idea. It was just a question of how to go about it. All of the stupid things that people say, like, "Where would we put all the people?" or, "How would we pay the pensions?" or, "Is it only for the rich?" or, "Wont dictators live forever?" and so on, all of these things... it's just painful. Especially since most of these things have been perfectly well answered by other people well before I even came along. So, it's extraordinarily frustrating that people are so wedded to the process of putting this out of their minds, by however embarrassing their means; coming up with the most pathetic arguments, immediately switching their brains off before realising their arguments might indeed be pathetic.
THE INSIGHT: I'd be fascinated to know what your dialogue has been like with pharmaceutical companies and why they have not been more forthcoming?
AUBREY DE GREY: So, there's a somewhat different scenario, because that problem of believing that the whole thing is never going to happen is still true, but there are various other aspects that influence the attitude of... well, beyond big-pharma, the medical industry in general. One thing is, they want to make money; they're worried about quarterly balance sheets, they want to make money now; they don't want to make money 20 years from now. They also don't know that the particular approaches that we're taking are the ones that are going to work; they want to buy up ideas that have already gone through and have been through clinical trials, and then run with them and capitalise on them. They know perfectly well that when things are at the pre-clinical stage - especially when they're only in a conceptual stage and haven't even been tested in mice - that the hit-rate is really low, even when the concept is correct, such that the concept has to be retried multiple times before one comes up with an actual substantiation of the concept that works.