5th August 2015
An interview with aging and longevity expert Aubrey de Grey
Aubrey de Grey is Chief Science Officer of the SENS Research Foundation, which is working to find a solution to aging. He believes that the first humans who will live to be 1,000 years old could already be alive today. Yesterday, he appeared on a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) session to answer questions posed by futurology enthusiasts. Some of the responses are reproduced below.
Reddit: I'm curious about how the advent of CRISPR affects the development of SENS therapies?
Aubrey de Grey: It's huge. It will be central to the delivery of the many SENS components that involve somatic gene therapy.
Reddit: Does it speed up the development timeline at all?
Aubrey de Grey: A lot, yes.
Reddit: Are you familiar with the current and/or potential scalability of CRISPR, i.e. it's one thing to edit a single cell in vitro, and a whole other to be able to reprogram every cellular gene expression of Huntington's disease in vivo? I'm really curious where we are on that scale because of the massive ramifications this technology has and it looks like a lot of progress is being made on the error rate.
Aubrey de Grey: It's going extremely well. Fidelity is key – i.e., minimising off-target modifications – and as you say, progress is rapid.
Reddit: What is the likelihood that someone who is 40 today will have their life significantly extended to the point of practical immortality? 30? 20? 10?
Is it a slow, but rapidly rising collusion of things that are going to cause this, or is it something that is going to kind of snap into effect one day?
Will the technology be accessible to everyone, or will it be reserved for the rich?
What are your thoughts on cryonics?
What is your personal preferred method of achieving practical immortality? Nanotechnology? Cyborgs? Something else?
Aubrey de Grey: I'd put it at 60, 70, 80, 90% respectively.
Kind of snap, in that we will reach longevity escape velocity.
For everyone, absolutely for certain.
Cryonics (not cryogenics) is a totally reasonable and valid research area and I am signed up with Alcor.
Anything that works! – but I expect SENS to get there first.
Reddit: Is it fair for me to be telling my friends and others I tell about this stuff, that considering the $25 a month I donate to SENS and the many dozens of people I have educated about SENS and curing aging in general, many quite successfully educated, that I may have personally saved the lives of 100,000 people at this point?
Along that line is this something it would be good for you and your people to really emphasize during talks? To tell people that they can feel good about themselves for going out and advocating and donating even a meagre amount of money because doing so means they are very truthfully saving the lives of tens or hundreds of thousands of people?
Aubrey de Grey: This is by far the best question yet on this AMA. Thank you!
First: I think you can say something like that (depending on how long it's been that you've been sending us $25). I believe that $1B right now would hasten the achievement of LEV by about 10 years; you can do the rest of the maths, but it comes out to about $2 per life – and of course "saving" means a great deal more in terms of extra years than it does for other ways of saving lives, so arguably it's more like a few cents per life.
And yes, I think I should emphasise this more. I probably will.
Reddit: On the topic of money, why do you think so much of the super rich, do so little with their hordes of money, when they could put it towards research of various types, including longevity? That's one thing I have trouble understanding it, my brain defaults towards conspiracy theory type theories. E.g. they are hoarding the money to keep others poorer, to keep themselves more powerful.
Aubrey de Grey: The super-rich are just as afraid of getting their hopes up as anyone else.
Reddit: What do you think of the efforts like Human Longevity Inc. that seem to be focused on DNA/genetic markers of aging, rather than the damage focus of SENS? Is their work helpful do you think?
Aubrey de Grey: It's definitely helpful in the short term, as a way to optimise what we can already do. It has very little longer-term relevance, because once SENS works, it will work the same for everyone.
Reddit: I watched a video from you back in 2013 where you commented on the announcement from Larry Page about Calico. You mentioned that Calico – if they're focused on early stage research – might highly benefit the battle against aging. What is your comment regarding Calico's research now that a couple of years have passed? More/less excited about their potential?
Aubrey de Grey: Cautious. They are structured perfectly: they are doing a bunch of highly lucrative irrelevant short-term stuff that lets them get on with unlucrative critical long-term stuff without distraction. But the latter may be getting too curiosity-driven and insufficiently translational. We'll see.
Reddit: Care to elaborate? "Highly lucrative irrelevant stuff" seems contradictory, likewise "unlucrative critical stuff" :)
Aubrey de Grey:
"Highly lucrative irrelevant stuff" = drugs for specific diseases of aging
"Unlucrative critical stuff" = work leading to actual LEV
Reddit: How difficult would it be maintaining/repairing the brain itself? While we can reasonably access almost every other part of the body, the brain always seems like this elusive bastion that we can't quite reach into for one reason or another.
Aubrey de Grey: With SENS, there's not so much difference between the brain and the rest of the body. It's the same seven types of damage.
Reddit: There has been a lot of noise lately about alternative models for mitochondrial aging and therapies for them. Do you still stand for the hypotheses your book defended, or has SENS changed the way it views mitochondrial aging?
Aubrey de Grey: No change.
Reddit: How much of SENS research involves experimentation on animals, if any? If this does happen, is the sacrifice of animal lives necessary to achieve the foundation's goals, or does it just make things easier or faster? Are there pathways to achieving LEV that don't involve experimentation on animals?
Aubrey de Grey: Quite a bit involves animals, like all biomedical research, but you jump too quickly to the word "sacrifice". How is it a sacrifice if we do things to animals that let them stay healthy longer?
Reddit: Do you think the regulatory pipeline for new therapies in the US and/or EU is adequate? What changes would you make to speed up/slow down/otherwise streamline the process from discovery research to clinical implementation and commercialization?
Aubrey de Grey: There's a lot happening to streamline it. The editorial in the next issue of Rejuvenation Research will discuss the 21st Century Cures Act from our angle. Bottom line: things are improving.
Reddit: Back in the days, what motivated you to decide to cure aging? Like, what was your motivation in the first place?
Aubrey de Grey: The correct question is, what the hell is wrong with everyone else that stops them from being motivated to cure aging? It's responsible for the overwhelming majority of global suffering. WTF?
Reddit: Any tips on not being afraid of death? Even though I'm at the moment 21 years old and my odds of reaching longevity escape velocity are decent, sometimes thinking about not-existing keeps me awake at night. The anti-aging research is kinda the only reason I'm not struggling with it so much anymore, but I don't think that's the correct way of coping with it.
Aubrey de Grey: I hear you. I have a close friend who is so scared of this that she is clinically depressed, and she's only 22. Actually I think getting involved in the anti-aging crusade is indeed the best way.
Reddit: I'm wondering how much time you spend thinking about what a post-death future would look like – is the day-to-day life of an immortal something you spend much time considering, or are you exclusively focused on making it happen at this point? Are there any people you'd recommend who are seriously considering the question?
If you have spent time considering it, what do you think are some major problems an immortal society would face that people DON'T typically talk about? (Rather than normal fears of overpopulation, lack of resources, etc.)
Aubrey de Grey: See the paper from Denver arising from work we funded:
The abstract sounds a bit pessimistic but only as a wake-up call.
Reddit: What do you think about the singularity in general? I think that if we achieved a singularity, it could help us achieve negligible senescence and potentially even immortality in a significantly shorter timeframe, and of course also all other technological wonders that it could bring.
Aubrey de Grey: Some people are working on AI for just that reason. I think we'll reach the Methuselarity first, but I could be wrong.