Interviewer: Scott Douglas Jacobsen
Numbering: Issue 5.A, Idea: Outliers & Outsiders (Part One)
Place of Publication: Langley, British Columbia, Canada
Title: In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal
Web Domain: http://www.in-sightjournal.com
Individual Publication Date: June 8, 2014
Issue Publication Date: September 1, 2014
Name of Publisher: In-Sight Publishing
Frequency: Three Times Per Year
Comprehensive interview with Dr. Aubrey de Grey, the Editor-in-Chief of the journal Rejuvenation Research, co-founder of the Methuselah Foundation, and co-founder of the SENS Foundation. The following interview covers the youth of Dr. de Grey; educational history; his work in the field of bio-gerontology and bio-medical gerontology; research conducted up until the present; definitions of ‘aging’ as seven separate processes: cell loss and cell atrophy, nuclear epi-mutations, mitochondrial mutations, death-resistant cells, extracellular crosslinks, extracellular aggregates, Intracellular aggregates; hypothetical research project; Methuselah Foundation (MF) & Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence Research Foundation (SENS) Foundation; and the trajectory of the ‘war against aging’.
Keywords: aging, bio-gerontology, bio-medical gerontology, cell atrophy, cell loss, Dr. Aubrey de Grey, Editor-in-Chief, Education, extracellular aggregates intracellular aggregates, extracellular crosslinks, Methuselah Foundation,mitochondrial mutations, nuclear epi-mutations, Rejuvenation Research, SENS Foundation, Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence.
1. How was your youth? How did you come to this point?
Pretty normal, but rather short on social life: I had no brothers or sisters (or indeed any family other than my mother), and I wasn’t particularly outgoing until I was about 15. I was always reasonably high-achieving academically and I immersed myself in that. When I discovered programming, and found I was fairly good at it, I decided to study computer science, and pretty quickly I decided to pursue a career in artificial intelligence research because I felt it was where I could make the most humanitarian difference to the world. At around 30, I started to realise that aging was a criminally neglected problem and that, maybe, I could make even more of a difference there. So I switched fields.
2. Where did you acquire your education? What education do you currently pursue?
I went to school at Harrow, a top UK boarding school, and then university at Cambridge. These days my education comes from my colleagues, via their papers and my interactions at conferences.
3. You work in the field of bio-gerontology. How do you define bio-gerontology? When did bio-gerontology interest you? Why did this field become a distinct area of research? Why does this garner such controversy?
In order to answer your question with clarity, I need to make a distinction first. There are two separate fields you’re talking about: bio-gerontology and bio-medical gerontology. Bio-gerontology is the study of the biology of aging as a basic science, with the goal of increasing our understanding of how it naturally occurs. Biomedical gerontology is the study of the biology of aging as a technology, with the goal of identifying ways to change how it naturally occurs (specifically, to slow or reverse it). Bio-gerontology has been a branch of biology for about 100 years, starting with ideas like the “rate of living theory”, and it’s not controversial at all. Biomedical gerontology has arguably existed for much longer, if you include the various elixirs that people have explored, but as a true field of technology I would argue that it has only existed for about 15-20 years, since people started trying to use what bio-gerontology had discovered as a guide to the development of therapies. I got interested in it about 20 years ago precisely because it was a field of technology that pretty much did not exist and I thought that maybe we understood aging well enough to start to develop such medicines. Bio-medical gerontology garners controversy because people are scared of how different the world would be if aging were truly eliminated, and also because (conversely!) people do not want to get their hopes up too soon so they put the issue out of their minds by kidding themselves that it would not be such a good thing after all.
4. What do you consider a pivotal moment in the transition to your current work?
The most pivotal moment was undoubtedly the night in 2000 when I realised that repairing the damage of aging would be much easier than stopping the damage from being created in the first place. That was a huge departure from traditional thinking. Of course there were many other pivotal moments leading up to that, but that’s the biggest one.
5. What kinds of research have you conducted up to the present?
SENS Research Foundation conducts and sponsors research in all areas relating to the repair of aging damage. In the SENS scheme, there are seven major types of damage – of course there are many examples within each type, but the classification into seven categories reflects our strategies for addressing them. We conduct research in all seven areas, prioritising aspects that are not being researched as thoroughly by others as we think is necessary. This ranges from stem cell work to create artificial organs or to regenerate existing tissue, to elimination of molecular “garbage” from the insides of cells and the spaces between them, to the restoration of function to mutant mitochondria, to the underlying basis of certain types of cancer – and that’s just a minority of the range of our interests.
6. If you currently conduct research, what form does it take?
Our research is really no different than any other biology research: we use the same techniques, the same equipment, our staff have the same skills. What’s different about our work is the goals: we pick our projects very carefully for maximum potential to hasten the development of a comprehensive panel of damage repair therapies that will postpone the ill-health of old age.
7. You define aging as a process. In particular, you define aging as seven processes: cell loss and cell atrophy, nuclear epi-mutations, mitochondrial mutations, death-resistant cells, extracellular crosslinks, extracellular aggregates, Intracellular aggregates. What academic and popular venues can professionals and lay-persons alike read on their own time about these processes in full detail? What processes have the most progress in slowing, halting, and reversing their respective portion of the aging process?
First, instead of “nuclear [epi] mutations” we normally say “Division-obsessed cells” these days. It’s the same concept but easier to explain.
The best place to discover about all this is, of course, our own output. Our website sens.org has summaries and somewhat more detailed descriptions of all these areas for the general audience. My book “Ending Aging” is also written to be comprehensible to non-biologists, but it’s extremely detailed and no biologist reading it would feel short-changed. Then of course there is my corpus of academic output that first described the SENS approach and its merits; the relevant papers are mostly from 2002 to 2005 and can easily be found in PubMed.
8. If you had infinite funding and full academic freedom, what would you research?
One of the benefits of being an independent non-profit is that we already have pretty full academic freedom. In particular, we are free to work on really difficult projects that do not deliver a steady stream of high-impact publications. Therefore, if we had much more funding, our overall strategy would not change much: mostly we would grow the projects we already pursue, parallelising them more so that they would go faster, rather than changing direction.
9. What do you consider the most controversial research topic at the moment? How do you examine the issue?
If anything I would say that the key research relevant to bio-medical gerontology is becoming less controversial. An obvious example is the development of iPS (induced pluripotent stem) cells, which has largely obviated the need to work with cells isolated by destroying embryos. Also, as we get better at genetically manipulating species relatively distant from us (like mice), we become progressively less reliant on experiments using non-human primates.
10. How would you describe your early philosophical framework? Did it change? If so, how did it change?
I don’t really view myself as having a philosophical framework. I guess that if I have one it is just that it’s my moral duty to do the best I can to improve people’s lives. But really I would more accurately say that that’s simply what makes me feel fulfilled, whether or not there is any objective ethical basis for it.
11. You co-founded the Methuselah Foundation (MF) & Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence Research Foundation (SENS) Foundation. You are Editor-in-Chief of the journal Rejuvenation Research. What purpose do these and other outlets serve for the bio-gerontology research community?
SRF is SENS Research Foundation; SENS is the methodology, SRF is the organisation pursuing the methodology. MF and SRF are not outlets for the research community – certainly SRF is not, because our focus is to do our own research. MF kind of acts as an outlet in that it highlights and popularises certain research areas by administering prize competitions. RR, on the other hand, is a regular peer-reviewed academic journal and thus is a standard type of outlet. It is distinctive mainly in that it is firmly focused on intervention, so it publishes work that might be seen as too “translational” for some other bio-gerontology journals but also too early-stage for clinical gerontology journals.
12. Who most influenced you? Can you recommend any seminal books/articles by them?
I have actually been influenced rather little by other opinion-formers. There are a few people I immensely admire, however, and in whose footsteps I try to follow. Let me just mention two, Mike West, founder of Geron and Advanced Cell Technology and now CEO of BioTime, has totally transformed the commercial landscape around some of the most critical biomedical technologies relevant to the defeat of aging, and I certainly recommend his book “The Immortal Cell.” Peter Diamandis founded the International Space University, then the Xprize Foundation, and then Singularity University, all real game-changes in the promotion and facilitation of visionary technologies designed to benefit humanity. His book “Abundance” tells the story really well. I’m privileged to know both Mike and Peter quite well and to benefit periodically from their insight.
13. Where do you see the bio-gerontology in the near and far future? Do you have a precise itinerary for major breakthroughs in the ‘war against aging’?
I will answer with regard to biomedical gerontology – see the distinction I made in my answer to question 3. The short answer is no – just as for any pioneering technology, the timeframe and even the order of events leading to final success is spectacularly speculative. However, I do think that the track we are on has at least a 50% chance of delivering really big increases in healthy (and, as a side-effect, total) lifespan in mice within the next decade and in humans two decades later.
14. What advice do you have for young researchers, especially those engaging in controversial research areas?
The good news is that research in aging has passed through two profound transitions that leave it as a much less controversial option than it used to be. Starting about 20 years ago, it transitioned from a backwater viewed by other biologists as a poor man’s field where hypotheses could not be tested, to a high-profile discipline whose leaders would get most of their papers published in Science or Nature. Then, over the past 5-10 years, it has become far more acceptable to work on aging with a biomedical mindset rather than a basic-science one, in other words with a goal of actually doing something about aging in the future rather than just understanding it better. So my advice would be not to be concerned about historic controversy, but to pick one’s research area on the basis of its relevance to the eventual goal. We at SRF are always happy to offer advice on this – we get queries all the time and we do our best to guide young researchers into the most high-priority areas.
15. Besides your own organizations and research interests, what fields of research, organizations, and non-profits can you recommend for interested readers?
I don’t know how to answer that question. Obviously my recommendation to those who share my basis for choosing a research area is to get involved with SENS. If someone is deciding what interests them on a different basis, they’ll come to a different conclusion, but I’m not about to try to tell them what conclusion.
1) de Grey ADNJ, Ames BN, Andersen JK, Bartke A, Campisi J, Heward CB, McCarter RJM, Stock G. Time to talk SENS: critiquing the immutability of human aging. Annals NY Acad Sci 2002; 959:452-462.
2) de Grey ADNJ, Baynes JW, Berd D, Heward CB, Pawelec G, Stock G. Is human aging still mysterious enough to be left only to scientists? BioEssays 2002; 24(7):667-676.
3) de Grey ADNJ. Challenging but essential targets for genuine anti-ageing drugs. Expert Opin Therap Targets 2003; 7(1):1-5.
4) de Grey ADNJ. The foreseeability of real anti-aging medicine: focusing the debate. Exp Gerontol 2003; 38(9):927-934.
5) de Grey ADNJ. Escape velocity: why the prospect of extreme human life extension matters now. PLoS Biol 2004; 2(6):723-726.
6) de Grey ADNJ, Campbell FC, Dokal I, Fairbairn LJ, Graham GJ, Jahoda CAB, Porter ACG. Total deletion of in vivo telomere elongation capacity: an ambitious but possibly ultimate cure for all age-related human cancers. Annals NY Acad Sci 2004; 1019:147-170.
7) de Grey ADNJ, Alvarez PJJ, Brady RO, Cuervo AM, Jerome WG, McCarty PL, Nixon RA, Rittmann BE, Sparrow JR. Medical bioremediation: prospects for the application of microbial catabolic diversity to aging and several major age-related diseases. Ageing Res Rev 2005; 4(3):315-338.
8) de Grey ADNJ. A strategy for postponing aging indefinitely. Stud Health Technol Inform 2005; 118:209-219.
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