Radical lifespan extension: A chat with Aubrey de Grey

AdG-TEDDr. Aubrey de Grey is a biomedical gerontologist based in Cambridge, UK and Mountain View, California, USA, and is the Chief Science Officer of SENS Research Foundation, a California-based 501(c)(3) charity dedicated to combating the aging process. He is also Editor-in-Chief of Rejuvenation Research, the world’s highest-impact peer-reviewed journal focused on intervention in aging. He received his BA and Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge in 1985 and 2000 respectively. His original field was computer science, and he did research in the private sector for six years in the area of software verification before switching to biogerontology in the mid-1990s.
Byron Reese: What’s the current state of the effort to “cure death”?
Aubrey de Grey: Well, first off, let’s be perfectly clear. I don’t work on “curing death.” I work on health. I work on keeping people healthy. And, yes, I understand that success in my work could translate into an important side effect, which is that people would, on average, live longer.
But ultimately, the main thing people die of is being unhealthy, being sick. And if you can keep people less sick, it means that they’re going to live longer. Now, it happens that the particular way in which I am working on stopping people from getting sick is a really comprehensive one that applies to all aspects of the ill health of old age, so the side effect is going to be bigger than people are used to. But still, it’s just a side effect. I don’t work on longevity. I work on health.
And another big thing to understand is that even if you think, well, this is just words, and I really do work on longevity, the fact is I still don’t work on “curing death,” because you can die of a whole bunch of other things. You can die by being hit by a truck. We can all die if we get hit by an asteroid. So it’s all about health.
Well, if your goal is working on health, and eliminating some of the things that make people die prematurely, what are some of the biggest breakthroughs we’ve seen in, say, the past decade?
Most of the most important breakthroughs have been preliminary. They have been early-stage work but have not yet reached the clinic. So, one example is induced pluripotency, the ability to take cells and reverse their development, to take them back to a stage that we normally, naturally see only shortly after fertilization.
That is enormously important, because it allows us to create cells that are of any kind we like, more or less. And that we can reintroduce into that same person. That’s hugely important for sidestepping the problem of immune rejection that exists if you try to put cells from one person into another person. Then there’s CRISPR [a naturally occurring defense mechanism found in bacteria that allows scientists to “edit” genomes], with which we have gained really good ability to manipulate our DNA.
Do you work on bypassing the Hayflick limit, or extending telomeres?
We are actually interested in telomeres in a different way from that. So, it’s well understood that telomeres get shorter when cells divide, but not many of our cells actually do divide all that much.
A lot of our cells are simply incapable of division, because of the specialization they have adopted, like neurons, for example, and so a lot of our cells are capable of division, but they only actually divide very occasionally, when they’re called upon to do so, because of some kind of injury.
There are only a very small number of our cells which divide regularly throughout life, and frequently throughout life. So it’s actually not clear that the problem of shortening of telomeres really matters all that much in most aspects of human aging. However, what we can say is that the lengthening of telomeres is itself a problem, in one major effect of age-related disease, namely cancer.
So our approach is actually to do the opposite of what many people are trying. We want to suppress telomere elongation, we want to make it impossible for cells to extend out their telomeres and in doing so, to actually prevent cancers—not from starting, not from initiating, but from getting out of control.
We know that there are some cells in the body that will suffer if we completely eliminate the ability of the body to extend its telomeres. But we think that we can solve that problem using stem cell therapy.
If you achieved all of your aims of curing all disease and promoting health, do you think the human body then has a natural limit to its life span?
Absolutely not. I think that as things stand today, before the medicines that we are working on have come to fruition, that there is definitely a natural maximum life span, because there are various types of damage that the body does to itself as a side effect of the way the body works.
The best example of this is breathing. Breathing is pretty damn nonnegotiable. But the effect of breathing is the creation of free radicals, which cause a lot of damage. So yes, damage is always happening, and right now there is only so much that we can do to minimize that rate, and there’s only so much accumulated damage that we can tolerate.
But our work revolves around repairing that ongoing damage. And that will completely transcend any such limits. It’s just like a vintage car. Vintage cars were not designed to last more than ten or 15 years, but preventive maintenance, so long as it’s comprehensive, can completely transcend any such limits.
Are there aspects of humanity, of being human, that are not directly related to our physical self? So, in other words, I’ll start with a very big question: What do you think “consciousness” is?
I honestly have no particular opinion on what consciousness is. First things first, I don’t want to get sick, and I don’t want you to get sick.
What do you think are going to be the social impacts of extending people’s lives? So, I guess at the beginning, all of these new medical technologies are expensive, and then they become cheaper. Is there any implication of, you know, there’ll be some people who get to live two or three times longer than the other people, or not?
There will be enormous social consequences, no question. But I think we need to look at this question a little bit more objectively than most people do. The fact is that, yes, we need to figure out issues like, how will we pay the pensions, and so forth, so everybody gets these therapies. But these are not new questions. These are the same questions that we have faced with all advances, with any new technology that has affected the human race.
Think about the Industrial Revolution. We didn’t know what we were doing, we figured it out. We’ve got to remember that the main purpose is to stop people from getting sick just because they were born a long time ago. Ultimately, if you ask anyone—if you ask an audience, whether they want to get Alzheimer’s disease, you’re going to get a fairly unanimous “no.”
And if you ask them whether they would like to get Alzheimer’s disease when they reach the age of a hundred, you’re still going to get the unanimous “no,” and it’s the same for cancer. It’s the same for all of the diseases of old age. The real reason we get these crazy questions—you know, like “how will we make sure that this is available to everybody?”—is because they have this crazy, crazy idea in their heads that there is this thing called aging, that is in some way completely separate, completely unconnected with any disease. In biological reality, there is no such distinction.
All aspects of the ill health of old age are part and parcel of the same phenomenon. The fact that we call some of those aspects diseases and some of them not is absolutely irrelevant.
Do you think—have you read J.R.R. Tolkien?
I’ve seen the films.
So, they have these creatures called elves, and they didn’t have a natural life span. And then you have creatures, you know, men, who do. And I was always puzzled because they both kind of went off and fought in war at kind of the same rate. And it would seem to me that as your life span increases, your propensity to take risky behavior declines, because you just have that much more to lose.
Do you think that’ll happen? That people will stop skydiving and riding motorcycles? Because now all of a sudden, they’re not just going to lose the next 30 years, but the next 400 years.
First of all, with regard to Tolkien, it’s been pointed out that my name, Aubrey, is a corruption of the name Oberon, who was, of course, the king of the elves in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. So I have a certain heritage there. With regard to your question, I think that people will be less inclined to take risks. But the question that you should be asking is “What will we do about it?” Because there are two options. One of those options is to avoid potentially bad things, to stay in bed all day, and avoid going out for fear of being hit by a truck.
But the other option is to lower the risk. To make things less risky than they currently are. We can do this. We can make safer cars, we can spend more money on vaccine development to avoid pandemics. We can spend more money on asteroid detection, to avoid the planet being hit by one. All of those things. We’re not doing it now because they don’t matter very much, because aging is killing us off so quickly.
Can you describe your current endeavor, and—I’m kind of curious—how do you spend your days? Are you in a lab? Are you writing? How do you pass your time?
I have two major roles. One role is I am the chief science officer of SENS Research Foundation. I oversee our scientific work, our research. I orchestrate and determine which projects we fund, and which we don’t, and how much money goes to each of them. That’s part of what I do.
The other part of my work is outreach. I give interviews like this. I give huge numbers of talks to all manner of audiences. And all of that helps increase the rate at which our work can proceed.
And do you have provisions set up, if something befalls you, untimely, that you’ll be cryogenically frozen?
First of all, yes, absolutely. I am signed up with Alcor. I definitely want to make sure that I have a second chance, so to speak, if I become legally dead. I take the view that we are mistaken in our conventional views that death is an instantaneous progress: rather, it’s a gradual process, and if that process can be arrested very early on, just after one’s heart stops, you have a very good chance of being revived by medicine of the future.
Another thing I want to say, though, is that I also have very much taken measures that the mission should continue, if something were to befall me. Because it’s extremely clear to me that my role is very major at this point, and I want to make sure that I become as obsolete as possible, as soon as possible, so that whatever would befall me would not befall the mission itself.
And when did you get interested in this topic, in aging?
I became interested in this topic, and committed to following it, twenty-odd years ago now, when I began to realize that biologists were mostly not interested in it. I had gone through my entire life until the age of—well, my mid-twenties anyway—presuming that everybody agreed and understood that aging was the world’s most important problem, and therefore biologists would be working on it very aggressively.
And it was only in my late twenties that I became aware that, no, that wasn’t the case. That most biologists took the view that aging was quite uninteresting, unimportant—and perhaps, inherently, not even in principle amenable to intervention. I was completely horrified by this—it was a total surprise—and so eventually I decided that I had no choice, I had to switch fields from my pre-existing area of computer science. I had gone into computer science in order to work on the world’s second-most important problem, tedium (the fact that most of us have to spend so much of our time doing things we don’t want to, just to keep the world going round)—in other words, to develop artificial intelligence so that machines would have enough common sense to do those things for us. But I’d always known it was only the number two problem.
Um, how old are you now?
I’m 52.
And what is your expectation of how long you’ll live?
I don’t have an expectation. If SENS therapies come along in time for me, there’s no way to put a number on it, whereas if they don’t, I will only live roughly to the age that people die today. I’m doing pretty well for my age at the moment, so I think it’s unlikely that I will die before the age of ninety. But, if I’m preserved, then, of course, I have another chance later on.