On par with Silicon Valley’s most eccentric brainiacs, like Ray Kurzweil and Elon Musk, this 52 year old – looking not too dissimilar to a scholarly wizard – strongly believes there is a cure for ageing in sight and that “trivial” questions, such as “Where would we put all the people?”, are merely a “painful” distraction to the real discourse.
However, society’s discussion about death and ageing has always been a torrid one. Youth remains as attractive a proposition as ever and strong stigmas and taboos remain in place. So, this poster-boy of ‘living forever’ has found himself in the unlikely position of the hero as well as a heretic. Whether de Grey and his research outfit at SENS are on the right track to defeating ageing, only time will tell. What we do know is that he is a polarising and unconventional individual and has kick-started a public debate surrounding the ethical and moral dilemmas of extending life. Only you can be the judge, that is, if you live that long.
Thanks for taking the time to talk with us. Maybe you could give our readers an overview of your journey into the area of age extension and longevity, and tell us what piqued your interest in this particular field of science?
I started out in a completely different field; I was originally a computer scientist working in artificial intelligence research. The reason why I switched fields was very simple, really: when I was 26, I met and went on to marry a senior biologist – a geneticist from California, actually – and over the next couple of years I accidentally learned a lot of biology and gradually began to realise that we were never talking about ageing and, indeed, that my wife and other biologists I was meeting had no interest in ageing – they thought it was a rather boring and unimportant topic. I was completely side-swiped by that, I had absolutely no expectation of that. I had gone through my entire life presuming that everybody understood that ageing was the world’s worst problem.
When I eventually, after another couple of years, came to terms with the fact that, indeed, it was an enormously neglected backwater in biology, I came to the conclusion that I had no choice but to switch fields, because although the field I was currently working in was very important for humanitarian reasons – perhaps the second most important problem in the world; the problem of people having to spend most of their lives doing tedious bullshit that they’d rather not be doing – this was clearly the number one problem.
Maybe I can give you a little anecdote to begin our discussion about this particular area, because I would love to get your opinion on this: I was walking down a supermarket aisle and I picked up a fruit-smoothie bottle, and on the side of it was written this, “We’re all made of cells, every single bit of us. So it makes sense to look after them. We’ve fortified this delicious super smoothie with a trio of antioxidants: vitamins C, E and selenium. Antioxidants protect cells from being damaged by rogue free radicals, so that’s why they’re in. We are the cell preservation society.”
Yes, that’s a classic example of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing, really. There are some elements of truth in all that. Antioxidants do indeed prevent damage from free radicals, but antioxidants don’t often get to the right place at the right time. A free radical may be created as a side-effect of some normal metabolic process, normally a side-effect of breathing, but, the free radical will react to something we don’t want it to, like DNA. If that happens, then it doesn’t matter how many antioxidants you have, if they’re in the wrong part of the cell.
The second problem is perhaps even more fundamental, which is that the antioxidants that we already have in the body are tuned to be at the right level. The reason there is a right level – in other words, why you can have too much in terms of antioxidants – is because free radicals have been around for a very long time. We have basically had to cope with free radicals ever since we adopted the policy of using oxygen to breathe, and that’s two billion years ago.
So, it’s no surprise that evolution has made the best of a bad job and has figured out how to use free radicals as useful molecules – signalling molecules, in particular. So, what happens in practice if you give a bunch of dietary antioxidant supplements to somebody is, not a lot. What happens is that the body will simply dial-down the inbuilt antioxidant machinery to compensate and the free radical level will stay how it was.
I want to get a good sense of where your research is at the moment, because essentially, as far as I understand, your approach to lengthening peoples’ lifespans is to clean out certain types of molecular junk in our cells. There are two approaches, as far as I understand: Gerontologist Bill Andrew’s approach, which is based on lengthening our telomeres (telomeres are an essential part of human cells that affect how our cells age) and yours, which is clearing out the molecular junk and your 7-step plan in order to do that; removing excess fat cells and senescent cells. I’d really like to know, where are you in the work you’re doing right now?
First thing I want to do is somewhat correct your characterisation; the cleaning out of junk from cells is only one of the seven things that we think need to be done to actually fix the problem of ageing comprehensively. It is one of the most high-profile ones; it’s very easy to explain all that. But, we have six other categories, and I don’t believe that fixing just that one category is going to do much on its own.
When you describe our work as being in contrast to Bill Andrew’s telomere-based approach, suggesting that we are the only two approaches is something of an oversimplification. The approach that Bill is promoting and trying to develop is to extend the telomeres and thereby allow them to divide indefinitely. The first thing I’d like to point out is that both of us agree that this may or may not be a good idea, because it’s definitely good to stop cells from getting into a state where they can’t divide when they should, but it’s bad to let cells get into a state where they can divide when they shouldn’t.
Cancer is precisely the point, yes. So, at this point, it really is an open question whether simulating telomeres and allowing telomeres to be extended more than they naturally would be is a good thing or a bad thing. Most people think it would be on balance a bad thing, and I’m in that camp, but, Bill is taking the minority view that it might be a good thing on balance. There are various ways to go about that ‘best of both worlds’; we are attacking it in one way and other people are attacking it in another way, so it’s all complicated.
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?
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, 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.
There’s also an incredible wealth of objection and criticism or even slight anxiety towards the work that you do. What I find interesting is that you feel like, or at least it looks like, you have to get out there and face a lot of these questions; you have to face these people on Hard Talk, all these very difficult questions about humanity, life and philosophy, all these culturally entrenched ideas that we have. How do you feel about that, does it carry a lot of weight on the work that you do?
Absolutely it does. Although I don’t find these questions difficult at all, I find them trivial. But, they are definitely put in a somewhat aggressive manner sometimes. The reason I think it’s so important is that ultimately, at the end of the day, we need to get this work done.
When I started out, I had three problems to solve: I had to come up with a plan for defeating ageing; I had to go and enthuse the world leaders in each of these various disciplines that were relevant to fixing these various types of damage; and I also had to empower them, I had to obtain the resources to allow them to get on with the job. Now, the first step happened all in one moment when I had this ‘Eureka’ moment realising that the comprehensive damage-repair approach was vastly more practical to implement than anything people were working on at the time or what people are working on now, so that was great.
The second part was the process of meeting all the people, getting integrated into different scientific communities and so on, and it had already begun before then in the 90s. But, certainly, I would say, at least by 2005 it was completely over; I had absolutely enough of the relevant people onboard, in respect of all of these various disciplines.
So, that meant that it was only number three; it was only getting the money. So, then the question is: how do we get the money? Of course, one way to do it, and indeed the way we’ve been most successful so far, is to go out and find high net-worth individuals, wealthy people, small numbers of them maybe, who will be enthused and just give us their money. That has worked to an extent, but it has not worked to a sufficient extent, not because there aren’t enough people, but because an awful lot of those wealthy people who are in principle enthusiastic and supportive and so on, just have inhibitions based on other things that we can’t do anything about; they don’t want to be laughed at by their fellow billionaires down at the marina, or they don’t want their wives to divorce them because she doesn’t think it’s a good idea. Literally, these are the kinds of things that get in the way.
I’m not even inferring this, some of these people have actually told me this to my face. The fact is, I’ve got to go and soften up the general public as well; I’ve got to go and alleviate the concerns and knee-jerk reactions that people have whenever someone talks about anything that involves radical life extension. Of course, a lot of it is about just getting them to understand that we don’t actually work on radical life extension at all, that this work is all about health, this work is simply all about stopping people from getting Alzheimer’s, stopping people from getting cancer, and osteoporosis, and so on. The longevity benefits that we keep talking about and that the media fixates on so much are purely a side-effect of not being sick.
“An awful lot of those wealthy people who are in principle enthusiastic - they don’t want to be laughed at by their fellow billionaires down at the marina, or they don’t want their wives to divorce them because she doesn’t think it’s a good idea.”
Aubrey de Grey
What I found ironic when I was watching the documentary made about you, The Immortalists, is that cancer cells divide forever. I find it ironic that it kills you, and yet it’s essentially part of what you’re trying to achieve to prevent death. When you’re a baby your cells divide up to 50 times, and when you get older they only divide up to around 10 times, yet cancer cells are dividing indefinitely.
I don’t see it as ironic, I just see it as a fact of life. The fact that the body is a consortium of different cells doing different things and most of those cells, in doing what the body needs them to do, involve not dividing – or at least not dividing very often. I suppose it might be ironic, but it’s really just the machine going wrong.
What I was thinking, and it might be outlandish, is: can you use any of that intelligence from the disease in order for it to be useful in the work that you’re doing?
I wouldn’t say we really can. When we develop these various ideas to see how we can repair the damage of old age or prevent it from developing into pathology, we are just talking about looking at the actual specifics. You can’t really do that at a thirty-thousand ft level; you have to get deep into the details of how the biology actually works and figure out how to manipulate it.
Have you at any point in your career had an anxious response from governments about your work, like it being a national security threat?
No, governments 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 doesn’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 won’t, 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.
I’d be fascinated to know what your dialogue has been like with pharmaceutical companies and why they have not been more forthcoming?
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.
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?
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.
It might be a very obvious question, but it just sprung to mind – maybe you’ve been asked this before, it’s extremely philosophical and speculative – what do you think happens when you die?
Oh, fuck off. I don’t give a damn. I’m a practical kind of guy – I’m not intending to be that experiment.
Fair enough. I’m interested in your background in artificial intelligence and the work that you do now. People like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk raise a lot of alarm bells about it (A.I). Do you ever think about that looming factor of the future alongside A.I?
It’s definitely something that I pay a great amount of attention to, because, as you said, I do have a background in that area so I can reasonably follow what’s going on and what people are thinking about – some of the leaders in this area are quite good friends of mine. I’m fascinated by it and I think it’s a major area of debate. There are lots of open questions as to whether the kind of A.I that people are scared of can even be built at all, even in principle and if it can, how best to ensure that it acts in the interest of mankind rather than against the interest of mankind. But, the work that I was doing back in the day, back in the 1980s and early 90s, wasn’t really in that area.
“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.”
Aubrey de Grey
As technology moves forward, how do you think that’s going to change – say, ten years from now – can you forecast how powerful technology will get and how it will allow you to pursue your work and look into the vast opportunities to help your cause?
I want to give a careful answer to that question. If the experts don’t give estimates then the rest of the world is going make up their own predictions that are even more uninformed than the predictions of the experts. So, don’t get me wrong, in the case of ageing they’re going to be grossly pessimistic and everyone’s going to end up suddenly being surprised by technologies that are going to happen and wont be prepared properly, and the turbulence that will occur in the transition to a post-ageing world will be much greater than it would have been if people had actually paid attention earlier on.
So, I do think that far ahead, and even further than that. I think that in the next 10 years we’re likely to hit a tipping point that I have historically called “robust mouse-rejuvenation”; I believe that we’re going to reach a point where we have mice in the laboratory and we extend their lives by a sufficient magnitude and by appropriate means, so the scientific community will begin to believe strongly that we’ve cracked this; that it’s only a matter of time before we bring ageing under control for human beings as well. Once the scientific community, the acknowledged, expert, credentialed scientific community, has a consensus, that’s when my job will be done, because literally the following day Oprah Winfrey will be saying, “Well, if it’s possible and it’s only a matter of time then let’s make it as little time as possible”. Then, the day after that, it will be impossible to get elected unless you have a manifesto commitment to actually have a war on ageing, right now.
You recently found bacteria in soil that can potentially prevent heart disease, but what I’d be interested to know about is your idea of nature overall in working with it, what it can offer you in the work you do, how it inspires you – because, it’s juxtaposition to nature itself. There are skeptics who say you’re working against nature.
Yeah, you’re right, it sounds like a dichotomy, but not really. The whole of medicine is about manipulating nature in artificial ways that nature itself had not invented, and that’s all we’re doing; we’re just doing medical research to develop new medicines that medicines so far do not do. The exploitation of nature, taking advantage of tricks that nature has developed, is absolutely a very big part, it’s the touchdown of how we identify ways to move forward; nature is extraordinarily clever and therefore the tools that nature has developed are extraordinarily versatile, and if we can repurpose some of those tools then that’s wonderful.
A lot of the breakthroughs that underpin putting me in a position to develop them – SENS’ concept in the first place, 15 years ago – came from the fact that I was not just focusing on the biology of ageing itself, but I had taken the trouble to acquire an in-depth knowledge of a much wider variety of biomedical research and biological research, such that I was able to identify and see ways in which we could use stuff in nature in ways that other people had not seen.
But, then, of course, the point is the things that we use against aspects of ageing and human beings need not have evolved for that purpose; the work that we’re doing on atherosclerosis, for example, involved bacteria from the soil. Those bacteria can breakdown the material that limits our life – oxidised cholesterol – but they don’t do it in order that they can live longer, they do it just because they can get energy out of it, they can live on the stuff.
My last question would be: where are you at right now with your work, is there a current breakthrough?
The wonderful thing about splitting into these 7 sub-problems, this ‘divide and conquer’ strategy, is that there’s always progress being made here and there; there’s always good news everywhere. Some areas of our work are not really our work in the sense that we don’t actually do much of them. The reason we don’t is that they are being done by other people, an example of this is stem cell therapy, which is the way to fix one of the 7 problems – the problem of cell loss. Equally, the work we do focus on – the really difficult work that’s too difficult for most of the biological community to actually prioritise – is also moving forward. Those are the ones that give me this time-limit of 10 years – I think it’s more like 6-8 years at this point, to be honest. That gives us a realistic shot at comprehensive repair within that sort of time-frame.
The reason I single him out is because, first of of all, he’s one of the rare visionaries of the world, like me; he really understands the value of long-term thinking and aiming high, and there are not very many people like that.
He has a company called Biotime. He’s totally not in favour of ageing, but he has an idea of how to actually do business; how to work in the private sector in a manner that makes money, and gets pioneering start-ups to actually succeed, he’s done that 3 times now, in the most amazing way. I don’t know anyone who comes close.
He was one of the absolute pioneers of gerontology back in the 1950s; he was the first person to realise that free-radicals could be really important in ageing and made other advances.