There will be no old people – anti-aging scientist
Is the Fountain of Youth still just a dream, or does hope spring eternal when it comes to beating the curse of aging? Having haunted us for centuries, is a solution finally within our grasp? We spoke to Dr Aubrey de Grey, anti-aging pioneer, chief science officer, and co-founder of SENS Research Foundation.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Dr. Aubrey de Grey, anti-aging pioneer, chief science officer and co-founder of SENS Research Foundation, welcome to the show, great to have you with us. So what you propose in order to reverse aging is cleaning the organism of all the junk that accumulates there on the cellular level. Tell me the gist of it – why will that stop the wearing of time on my organs?
Aubrey de Grey: Well, it’s not quite that simple. What we propose is that we can keep people healthy late in life by repairing all of the damage that the body does to itself throughout life in the cause of its normal operation. And some of that damage is of the sort that you’ve just described, essentially, the accumulation of waste products both inside cells and also in the spaces between cells. But some of this is not quite like that. For example, sometimes simply we have too many of a particular bad type of cell that is misbehaving, or, in other cases, we don’t have enough cells of a particular good type. Cells die, and they are not necessarily replaced automatically by the division of other cells. Furthermore, there is damage to the structure, the kind of lattice of proteins that holds the body together, which is called the extra-cellular matrix. So, as you can see, there are many different types of damage, and we have to fix them all. Now, our work at SENS Research Foundation is exactly that. We are focusing on many of these things because we know that they all need to be developed and applied to people at the same time in due course. And, in a few cases, the rest of the world is already understanding this and focusing well on them. So, for example, of course, there’s a huge amount of stem cell research going on worldwide. But the reason we created the Foundation was because there are plenty of other areas which were very neglected. Luckily, we’ve made lots of progress in that, so now, everyone’s getting much more excited about it.
SS: So ok, but… This is, like, a very general description of what you do, of what you strife, but how does this look technically? Like, what do you do, is it like a potion that you inject in yourself? What is this that you are working on?
AG: Well, let me answer that in two ways, from the point of view of the person who is going to be receiving these therapies, and also from the point of view of people like us, the researchers who are developing them. From the point of view of the person who’s going to be receiving them, they will just look exactly like normal medicines delivered by injections or, perhaps, with pills. In some cases, there may be surgery involved. In terms of what is being injected or introduced, however, it’s going to be very, very complicated, lots of different components to it. We’ll be doing stem cell therapies, we’ll also be doing gene therapies, where we introduce engineered viruses into the body that modify the DNA of our cells. There will also be immunotherapies stimulating the immune system to do things, to repair things that it’s normally isn’t doing, and also, you know, simple pharmaceuticals. Now, in terms of developing these things, it gets pretty complicated. So, for example, one way in which we are addressing the problem of waste products, of the accumulation of stuff inside cells that stops them working, is we are identifying bacteria that have the ability to break these things down. And then we identify the genes that they have that give them that ability. And having done that, we then modify these genes so that we can put them into human cells, and they still work. And we’ve succeeded in this regard in relation to some very important aspects of aging that are caused by the accumulation of waste products. One of them is atherosclerosis, the number one killer in the Western world, and another one is macular degeneration, which is the number one cause of blindness in the elderly. So I think that gives you an idea.
SS: Alright. So at this point, have you had one big hit, a defining moment, whether it’s a successful drug test, or a surgery trial or anything else, that gives proof that this is all within grasp, that this is actually working?
AG: We’ve had a number of big hits, but not quite of that kind, because we work on the early stages of this research. When we get to the point where therapy, or a prospective therapy, is anywhere near going into the clinic to be actually used on human beings, it’s kinda no longer our problem. By that time, we have already, maybe, created a spin-out company and transferred the intellectual property into the company so that it can attract investment from wealthy people around the world, and they are the people who take it forward to clinical trial. So at the moment, SENS Research Foundation has existed for more than a decade. We’ve been doing this research, but just in the past few years, maybe 2 or 3 years, we have been taking several of our projects through out to the private sector in the way that I just described, as start-up companies, and those companies are not yet in clinical trials, but in general, they’re only 1 or 2 years away from that point. So the big hits that we’ve had are in terms of allowing this to be seen as a feasible idea. Previously, the approaches that we have pursued 10 years ago, they were just viewed as completely impossible. Everyone had essentially given up on these areas, and we showed that they shouldn’t have given up, you just needed to try a bit harder.
SS: So it doesn’t seem that your research went down too well with the scientific community, where SENS is branded by some as pseudoscience. Do you feel these accounts hold water? I mean, learning from peer reviews and criticism is a major part of any research, do you feel the negative input has been helpful?
AG: The mistake that you have made in that analysis is that you haven’t looked at the dates of the various reactions to what we say. There was indeed a great deal of scepticism and opposition, and indeed, denigration, of this work when I first started putting it forward, 10 or 15 years ago. People didn’t really understand what I was saying, and as you say, they often thought that it was just unscientific. But I was able to engage my colleagues in careful scientific debate on these areas, back in the mid-2000s, and the result was, basically, I was convincing. I was able to demonstrate that, actually, the only reason why my colleagues have been sceptical was because they didn’t really understand what I was saying. And now, this decade, we’re in a very different position. In fact, it’s so good that people are reinventing the concept and pretending it’s a new one. And they are actually getting, you know, these things are now completely mainstream. There are papers being written now that are used as the, essentially, the touchstone of the field, as a kind of description of what the field is supposed to be doing, and they are identical to what I said a decade earlier. So yes, that scientific argument has been completely settled. There are very, very few people now who would go out and say that this is unscientific.
SS: So you’ve been saying that one of the major problems your research is facing is money. Why is that? I mean, don’t rich people want to live forever... Don’t we all want to cure disease?
AG: Unfortunately, the way to persuade someone that they ought to support this financially does not only consist of getting scientific legitimacy. Yes, we’ve been able to show that this is a sensible way to proceed, but that doesn’t say that it’s going to succeed any time soon. It could take a long time. And of course, people don’t like to get their hopes up. You know, people like to kind of put aging out of their minds and, you know, get on with their lives and, kind of, not be preoccupied by this terrible thing that’s going to happen to them. And while the research remains at a relatively early stage, so that the timeframe before it becomes really available is still very speculative, that’s, you know, it’s kind of not surprising that people are a little reluctant to get heavily involved. That is changing now, because things are far enough along, as I mentioned, that they can be invested in, so people can actually make money of this, which kind of distracts them from getting too emotionally invested in whether they are going to be able to benefit themselves in terms of the therapy. And so, that’s all working out quite nicely. But there are so many other irrational reasons, especially in the West, why people don’t get involved in this. They’ll say, oh, you know, it’s because their wife doesn’t want them to, or it’s because they think their shareholders are going to feel that they are putting money into science fiction, and the share prices of their company will go down. Or, you know, they’ll think that, for example, philanthropy doesn’t work, you know, crazy reasons like that. But this is gradually changing over time. I will say, however, that in Russia, when I come to Russia, I never have this problem. Whenever I speak, whenever I come to Russia, I love it, because everyone’s really sensible about it. They really want to actually see this happen.
SS: Yeah. And I bet they trust you because you look like Dostoyevsky, so they probably see you, and they’re like, oh, he’s trustworthy.
AG: Well, some people say I look like Rasputin, so it doesn’t necessarily work.
SS: So tell us something, what is your ultimate endgame – do you want to prolong life, or do you just want to eliminate death altogether?
AG: Well, neither of those things, really. What I do is, I’m a medical researcher. So I’m interested in keeping people healthy, however long ago they were born. That’s all. Now, of course, most people die from being unhealthy, from being sick, and certainly, most people these days, in the developed world, when they get sick, it’s because they were born a long time ago. It’s because they’re old. So that means that if we fix that, if we keep people healthy when they’re old, then, on average, they will probably live a lot longer than they currently do. Now, that’s a side effect. It’s a really nice side effect, I think, you know, life is valuable, life is good, but the fact is, it’s still a side effect. So we shouldn’t really be thinking in terms of longevity, let alone, you know, immortality, as the goal here. The goal is simply to keep people healthy, sums it is for the whole rest of the medicine.
SS: Some are saying, a “silver tsunami” of aging people is set to hit the global economy by 2050s. Do you see any major rejuvenation solutions available by that time?
AG: I would go further, I would say that, absolutely, this rejuvenation biotechnology is the only way that we are going to keep the aging of the population from completely crippling the global economy. Already we’re in a hugely problematic situation. Of course, the difficulty is that the reason why we have so many people who are elderly now is because, number 1, we are preventing them from dying young, because we’re really good now at curing infectious diseases and so on, but also, because the types of thing that people get sick from late in life, they are slowly progressive chronic problems. So people don’t die at once, the way they do it from typical infections, they will continue to get gradually sicker, and sicker, and sicker, and more and more expensive over time. And so, if everyone is doing that, then, of course, the economic burden is absolutely astronomical. And yes, absolutely, the only way we’re going to be able to fix this is with rejuvenation technologies, as a result of which we will have, of course, far more older people, chronologically old, but far fewer sick people, and also we will save a huge amount of money.
SS: So will poor people be able to gain access to this rejuvenation therapy? Will it be affordable?
AG: Oh yes, and it will be affordable precisely because of my previous answer. From the point of view of the government, in any country we look it, whatever the political regime, whatever kind of country, – in any country, it will be far more expensive to let people get sick just because they can’t afford these therapies then to keep people healthy. In other words, these therapies will pay for themselves. The exact mechanism of how this is done, of course, will vary from one country to another, depending on whether they have private healthcare, depending on whether, you know, it’s a democracy or not, but the ultimate logic will apply across the board. These therapies will be enormously economically valuable, and therefore, it will be, economically, absolutely imperative for any country to ensure that everybody who’s old enough to need them gets them, even if they can’t afford to pay for them themselves.
SS: So, let’s say, those in positions of power, whether it’s politicians or business moguls, go through rejuvenation therapy every couple of decades, I mean, they could just stay there forever, never letting anyone new in their circle. No, but seriously, what will the absence of the great equalizer do to the way our societies function?
AG: So, of course I don’t know precisely how the world is going to develop once we don’t have aging anymore. You know, the world will be very different in a whole lot of ways, because of people living longer, people not getting sick, people, you know, just being able to carry on contributing wealth to society. Maybe we will develop ways to incentivise people to step down and have new careers, you know, just make them pay higher taxes the longer they stay in the same job, things like that. You know, there are a million ways to solve these problems, we just don’t know the details yet, but we don’t need to know.
SS: So you don’t think about how that’s going to affect humanity and our societies, coming up with something so ground-breaking as anti-aging medicine?
AG: Let me be clear, I certainly think about these things, but I also recognise that I am not an economist, I am not a politician, I am not a theologian, you know, I am a biologist. So all I am doing is telling the people who are professional economists and so on what’s going to happen and roughly how soon it’s going to happen, so that they can do their job of figuring out how societies should navigate that transition.
SS: So, like, we are running out of space on this planet already, this Earth is overpopulated. Where will we all live, and how will we sustain ourselves? I mean, if we assume it won’t be just a chosen few, like you say, and there will be enough rejuvenated people to make an impact.
AG: Right. So there, we have to look at what other technologies are coming along. At the moment, you’re quite right, we already had a problem of overpopulation, that’s why we have climate change. But the solution for that is not necessarily to have fewer people, but rather, to reduce the amount of pollution that people generate, whether it’s by moving from fossil fuels to renewable energy, or whether it’s with artificial meats, or whether it’s with large-scale desalination… You know, there are lots and lots of technologies that are already coming along, and they’re coming along even without our society having really woken up to the problem of climate change, they’re just coming along because they’re proving to be cheaper than the original alternatives. And those technologies are going to increase the carrying capacity of the planet. They’re going to mean that we’re going to have a lot more people on the planet with less environmental impact than we have today. That’s the way we need to think about this. Already, the problem is being solved, and if you ask a question like how rapidly will the population rise as a result of the end of aging, the actual arithmetic is not particularly scary. You know, at the moment, we have 7.5 billion people, people think that by 2050 we might have 9 billion or 10 billion. We certainly won’t have more than 11 or 12 billion even if we completely eliminate aging tomorrow.
SS: So do you see people who know they will live longer having fewer kids, or a possibility that reproduction could be less important in the future?
AG: Well, of course, we’re certainly seeing today… It’s pretty much universal, I think, the only exception in the history of civilization is Israel. Almost universally, when any country reaches a certain level of prosperity and female emancipation and education, then fertility rates go down dramatically. And there’s a big thing that we need to take into account there, which is that the… Not only do women on average have fewer kids, but also, they tend to have them later than they previously used to. Now, of course, it’s only a little bit later at the moment, because the problem of menopause exists. In other words, there’s only so late you can go before you can’t have kids at all, and people want to have kids at some point. The menopause is one of the things that’s going to go away. We’re going to be able to make it safe to have kids at any age. So the first reaction to that may be, oh dear, that means that the average woman is going to have more kids in their entire life, because they’re going to carry on having them! But if we take into account this delay that we’re seeing, we can ask, well, ok, this delay happens because women are choosing to do other things with their life before they do this terribly time-consuming thing that that’s having kids. So if they can, then it’s likely that on average they’re going to delay having their first kid by another decade, and another decade. So actually, we may even further reduce the rate of childbirth overall in the population.
SS: So you’ve said that once the therapy has been made comprehensive, you'll be able to choose your own age – live like you’re biologically 50, or like you’re 20. Who will choose to be old then? Are old people going to disappear altogether?
AG: I certainly don’t expect that very many people will choose to be biologically old. After all, being biologically old means your body isn’t working so well. It also means that your mind isn’t working so well. So I believe that, indeed, we will have pretty much no biologically old people. Even though, of course, we will have a much greater number of chronologically old people.
SS: So, aging may be akin to a disease, as you put it. But it also is a personal experience – I mean, we trust older people because they know what it’s like to be frail, to see things pass, they are wiser, less careless. Wouldn’t absence of ageing take away all that from society? A big part of it, actually? This intangible thing.
AG: I don’t see why people would become any less wise as a result of being healthier. You know, a 100-year-old person who is still able to think as fast as they could when they were 30 is probably going to be more able to make the most of their wisdom than the 100 year old who is of the kind that we see today.
SS: So what will renewing yourself do to our memories, our experiences? I mean, will those be flushed out or damaged as you clear the pathways of the brain of dead cells?
AG: Certainly not. In fact, we can probably say the opposite. What we see in dementia today, in Alzheimer’s disease, is, of course, a loss of the ability to remember things and to recall things. But there is good evidence that the main reason for this is not that the memories are gone, but rather that the system for retrieving the memories is damaged. So actually, we may be able to have older people be… Have more memory of their past than they do today.
SS: You’re also are working on the technology of cryopreservation that will give people the option to have their bodies frozen in liquid nitrogen after death until the technology is there to bring them back to life. How is this supposed to work? I mean, will this be like waking up after a really long sleep, and will the person still be the same?
AG: So, first of all, just to correct you a little bit, I don’t actually, we don’t actually work on that at SENS Research Foundation, but certainly, I am a strong supporter of cryonics. So yes, it will be very much like being in a deep sleep or a coma for a long time. The whole idea is simply that when we revive somebody, we will do so at a point where we can repair the damage that caused them to become legally dead in the first place. As, I am sure, you know, the definition of death, the legal definition of death, has had to change over the years, as medicine has improved and we have become able to repair and revive people who were previously thought to be unrevivable. And this is just the next step in that process.
SS: Dr. de Gray, thank you for the interview, it was great to have you with us. We were talking to Dr. Aubrey De Gray, anti-aging pioneer, and the chief science officer and co-founder of SENS Research Foundation, about ways to reach human longevity through medical means.