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An Interview with Anti-Aging’s Pioneer

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“This field is still considered by most to be something that is not really science, something that is not really possible, and we really have to change that.”

On January 3rd, 2018, Dr. Aubrey de Grey, the Chief Science Officers of the SENS Research Foundation and a leading anti-aging researcher, joined Merion West‘s Erich Prince to discuss the state of his current research, his bold prediction that there are likely people living today who will live to be 1,000, and to answer a few common criticisms of the anti-aging movement.

Thank you for being with us today, Dr. de Grey. I’d like to begin by reminding our readers of a bold prediction you shared with the world in your 2005 TED Talk: that there are people alive today whom you believe will live to be 1,000. Is this a view you still hold?

Yes, I do. Of course, I have always made clear that it’s only something that I think will probably happen. I think that it’s very important to emphasize that with any pioneering technology, bad stuff could happen that could make the problem harder than we’d thought. But there is definitely a chance, at least a 10% chance I would say, that it will not happen. However, I still think there is at least a 50% chance that it will happen.

Could you provide our readers with an overview of some of the various groups working towards accomplishing the main objectives of life extension? For example, there is the Buck Institute. We have your organization, SENS. Then there is the 2045 Initiative in Russia. How is your organization similar or dissimilar from these other organizations in the space?

Yes, you’re right.  There’s quite a lot going on.  There’s still not nearly enough going on; I should emphasize that first of all. This field is still considered by most to be something that is not really science, something that is not really possible, and we really have to change that.

But yes, there is quite a bit going on. Some of the initiatives are much more friendly than what the SENS Research Foundation does in the sense that—I don’t necessarily mean that in a pejorative sense—they are trying to do things that are a good deal harder and more early-staged than anything that we’re trying to do.

So, for example, the 2045 initiative is all about uploading, transferring one’s consciousness and one’s personality to hardware. And it would be an overstatement to say that that is completely impossible, and I think that there are various ways in which it has been proposed that need to be taken seriously. But I do believe still that it is a lot further away than the boring medical approach that we are committed to.

You mentioned the Buck Institute, a very important organization. They do a lot of very exciting work. But historically, their work has been rather conservative, in the sense that they have focused on trying to understand aging better and better—but not really focused on trying to exploit that understanding.

The advantage of it, though, was to develop interventions that allow us to stay healthy for a longer amount of time and therefore, of course, be alive for a longer amount of time.  Over the past several years, step by step, it’s been moving in a more translational direction, and we’ve been working increasingly closely with the Buck largely because of that.

So yes, we sit somewhere in the middle, if you like. We just do medical research; we don’t do anything that would be considered beyond that. But at the same time we are very translational indeed. We are always focused on developing methods to actually do something about aging. Furthermore, we are interested not only in just slowing aging down, but actually reversing it, repairing the damage of aging so as to put people back into a biologically younger state than they were before.

I know that this is a question that you have answered before, perhaps because it is such a powerful example. Could you explain this idea you describe of “longevity escape velocity” and what you mean when you use that rather striking term?

The reason why I feel that people who will live to a thousand are probably already alive is often oversimplified and misunderstood. What it sounds as though I’m saying is that within the next few decades, in other words in time for people who are already alive, we have a good chance of developing medicines that will completely abolish all aspects of aging so that we are left with the idea of only dying from causes that do not have to do with how long ago we were born—things like being hit by a truck or the planet being hit by an asteroid or whatever.

But that’s not what I’ve said at all, and that’s never what I’ve said. What I actually say is that within the next few decades we have a good chance of developing medicines that will give people maybe another 20 or 30 years of additional life over what they would have lived, not a thousand.

However, because the therapies that I think are going to work are repair therapies—such as rejuvenation therapies—that means that they will be applied to people who are already middle-aged or older at that time, and they will buy time. But because they will rejuvenate those people, those people will not be biologically the age they were when they got the therapies until maybe 30 years later.

Now at that point, the damage that they have will be more challenging than the damage that they had 30 years previously because, by definition, it will be the damage that the therapies were unable to repair. However, 30 years is a very long time in everything, including medical research. So it is, to my mind, pretty much certain that within those 30 years we will improve the initial therapies, what I like to call SENS 1.0. Having done so, we will be able to re-rejuvenate the same people with therapies that work even though the new therapies that are required will be inherently more challenging.

And of course, you can say that that general concept can be repeated. So that is why I think that we will actually see some people who are already alive today living to be a thousand. I think that we will never probably have therapies that one hundred percent are completely able to repair every scrap of damage that the body does to itself throughout life, but we will approach that level of perfection rapidly enough that we will get the same outcome [that we would] if we had that perfection.

I’ll ask you a question here, and I’m interested in your take because I asked Zoltan Istvan a similar question last month. It was inspired by a piece authored by political scientists Francis Fukuyama, a member of George W. Bush’s Council on Bioethics between 2001 and 2004. He’s getting at this idea that in his mind and maybe in the minds of some other people, if life extension technologies are limited: A. Who gets them? B. Is it possible that, in a world where some people have access to these technologies and others do not, there might become a two-tier hierarchy between the haves and have nots?

Yes, this is one of the standard objections or concerns that are raised about these things, and they’ve been raised since the dawn of time. I’ve been answering them since the dawn of time. To be honest, I’m getting frustrated that people—and I’m not talking about people like you, I know you have to ask these questions—but that people like Fukuyama continue to insist on repeating these concerns despite the fact that they have never actually provided any kind of rebuttal to the rebuttals that I provide.

They never say, “Oh no, this answer to my concern is actually not going to work.” They just repeat the concern, which of course is intellectually dishonest. The actual answer is very simple. There is no chance whatsoever that we will actually have this divide.The reason there is no chance is because in contrast to medicine that we have today—high-tech medicine for the elderly, that costs a lot and really is limited by ability to pay—so in contrast to that medicine, the medicine we’re talking about will actually work. In other words, it will genuinely keep people truly youthful and able-bodied for as long as they live, and that will be a lot longer.

And that means that those medicines, unlike today’s medicines, will pay for themselves. This is because they will allow the people who get the medicines to continue to contribute wealth to society. Now that, of course, is over and above all the other savings we will have. For example, kids will be more productive since they will no longer have to look after their sick parents, and so on. But the fact is that any way you do the arithmetic, even if you make pessimistic presumptions as to what the therapies will actually cost to deliver, and, of course, those numbers will inevitably come down over time anyway, it is still perfectly clear that it will be economically suicidal for any country not to make these therapies available to everybody who is old enough to need them.

Now, I know from the American perspective, that sounds quite counterintuitive because the United States is rather not fond of taxes, but the fact is you do this already. All countries do it already for some things. A great example would be basic education. Basic education is provided for free to everybody, even in the United States. The reason is because if you don’t educate your kids, then 20 years down the road you don’t have a workforce, and you don’t have prosperity. So it’s actually a completely misguided concern, and I’ve been giving this exact answer since the dawn of time, and I’d rather people actually acknowledge that the answer is out there.

Moving onto a question about the political ramifications, given that Merion West is chiefly a political publication. One of the main hurdles that Zoltan Istvan has talked about is that he believes that religiosity among some government officials and their belief in a religious afterlife might discourage them from sending funding in the direction of anti-aging organizations such as yours. Do you agree with that assessment, that the religiosity might be an impediment when it comes to fundraising?

I agree, and I disagree. I agree in the sense that initially it starts out being an impediment: a source of concern that may make politicians and policymakers initially cautious about [investing in anti-aging]. However, I disagree in the sense that I think it’s an even easier problem to resolve than the inequality of access one you were mentioning earlier because in this case, we have the huge advantage that somebody forms an opinion on the basis of a religious perspective, then they are forming it on the basis of something that is written down.

All religions have holy scriptures, and that’s very handy in this case because what it means is that one can just go to the Holy Scripture in question and say, “Well okay, what does this actually say about what we should be doing?” Of course you can argue many different ways about whether there is some kind of natural limit to lifespan and so on, but there are two things that come out of holy scripture that are extremely clear and which add up to a complete refutation of this concern. The first one is that we don’t have to worry about “playing God”—whatever that’s supposed to mean—because last I checked, God was supposed to be omnipotent and can strike you down with a thunderbolt whenever he likes, however healthy you are.

So if we think we may be able to live longer, that’s only what we think. It’s not affecting what God can do. But the second thing, which is perhaps even more important, is that the one thing that holy scripture is completely clear about—and I think I can speak for every scripture here even though I haven’t read very many of them—is that we’re supposed to try to alleviate suffering. What we’re supposed to be doing while we’re down here is actually improving the quality of life of our fellow man. There is no question whatsoever that aging causes far more suffering than anything else, so it would be a sin not to work on this. Again, I’ve used this argument many many times, and, again, nobody has come back and said, “No that’s actually not correct for this or that reason.”  Of course people will go very quiet or change the subject or whatever, but that’s all.

For our last question, and you’ve alluded to this a bit when talking about universal healthcare, what are some of the general shifts you’d like to see politically in order to make the national climate more receptive to technologies such as the ones you’re pioneering?

I honestly don’t think that that’s quite the right question. I don’t think that we need changes to government and so on with regard to new technologies. I think what we need is a little bit of long-term anticipation because the fact is that we’re going to get these technologies one way or another. It’s just a question of how soon.

But the second question is how ready we will be to implement them and to disseminate them and generally to introduce them in a smooth manner. We all know that the industrial revolution was a bit turbulent, and that was kind of like it was bound to be that way. We suddenly had these new machines, and we suddenly had a lot of people without jobs. Nobody really saw it coming; they couldn’t have seen it coming.

But this we can see coming because we’ve got all this work going on at the laboratory, and it’s publicized, a lot. That means, that there will come a point when we get these therapies, and people will have seen them coming. In particular, it means that it will come at a point much sooner, maybe even five years from now, as little as that. Then, results in the laboratory, just on life, are sufficiently impressive that the general public begins to believe that, yes, this whole “rejuvenation thing,” this whole “longevity escape velocity” thing really is probably going to happen soon.

Now, at that point, it doesn’t really matter who’s right and who’s wrong and who’s optimistic and who’s pessimistic. What matters is: it’s going to be complete pandemonium. Everyone’s going to change how they make their life choices, how they spend their money and so on because of the change that will have occurred in how long they expect to live. And it’s governments that have been putting their heads in the sand right up until that point, not listening to people like me who are telling them it’s coming. It’s going to be much more chaotic and turbulent than it will be if governments starting today start to pay attention to the wave that is coming and to how it’s going to roll out.

Thank you very much for joining us this afternoon, Dr. de Grey. It’s been a pleasure to hear your insights on this rather exciting and frequently misunderstood area of science.

Thank you for having me.

Erich J. Prince is the editor-in-chief at Merion West. With a background in journalism and media criticism, he has contributed to newspapers such as The Philadelphia Inquirer and The News & Observer, as well as online outlets including Quillette and The Hill. Erich has also spoken at conferences and events on issues related to gangs, crime, and policing. He studied political science at Yale University.

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