Could Human Beings Live For 1,000 Years?

Aubrey de Grey

In 15 years Aubrey de Grey’s reputation among gerontologists has moved from being one of ridicule to one of the most powerful and respected in the industry. (c) Abi Hardwick

Aubrey de Grey, a British gerontologist, has drawn a roadmap to defeat biological ageing.

Aubrey de Grey, an English biomedical gerontologist, claims that humans can live for 1,000 years. Through his foundation he has drawn a roadmap to defeat biological aging.

De Grey first authored research that claimed the “indefinite postponement of aging . . .  may be within sight” back in 2002. In the 15 years since, his reputation among gerontologists — scientists concerned with aging — has moved from being one of ridicule to one of the most powerful and respected in the industry.

In 2009, the 53-year-old scientist founded the public non-profit SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence) and has enlisted millions in support from a handful of billionaires and entrepreneurs, including Peter Thiel, Jason Hope, and Michael Greve.

Here, he discusses his theories, the challenges, and why he isn’t practicing life extension himself.

What have been the major advances at SENS and why haven’t life-extension programmes gone mainstream yet?

Over the past two years we’ve had a slew of breakthrough publications in journals such as Science, Nature Communications and Nucleic Acids Research that reported key advances against the most intractable components of aging. It’s no exaggeration to say that in at least a couple of cases we have broken through logjams that have stalled key areas for over 15 years.

You may feel that eight years is a long time to be only making such preliminary, step-one breakthroughs, but you’d be wrong — step one is always the hardest, and that is why nearly all research, whether in academia or in industry, is immensely biased towards the low-hanging fruit and against the high-risk high-reward work that is so essential for long-term progress. We exist as an independent foundation for precisely that reason. But, saying that, I must also stress that we are already showing great success in taking enough steps so that our programmes become investable. The atherosclerosis one was the first of, at this point, five start-ups that have emerged from our projects — covering conditions as diverse as macular degeneration, senescent cells, amyloid in the heart, and organ transplantation.

What are the key therapies that will create a 1,000-year-old human?

It’s critical to understand, and yet it’s almost universally overlooked, that my prediction of such long lifespans for people who are already alive divides into two phases. The first phase consists of the therapies that SENS Research Foundation is working on right now, along with parallel initiatives that have achieved sufficient traction that we don’t need to be their engine room anymore; most importantly, a variety of stem-cell therapies. The other ones are also one or another kind of damage repair or obviation — removing waste products, rendering mutations harmless, restoring elasticity. They combine to restore the molecular, cellular structure and composition of the middle-aged (or older) body, and thereby its function (both mental and physical), to how it was as a young adult.

But that’s only the first phase and I have always stressed that I don’t anticipate more than about 30 years of additional life arising from it. That’s a lot when compared to anything we can do today, but it’s not four digits. My prediction of four digits comes from the second phase, which arises from the critical fact that phase one buys time. If you’re 60 and you get a therapy that makes you biologically 30, then, yes, you will be biologically 60 again by the time you’re chronologically 90. Sure enough, the therapies won’t really work any more, because the damage that has made you biologically 60 again is, by definition, the more difficult damage, the damage that the therapies don’t repair. But this is 30 years on, and that’s an insanely long time in any technology, including medical technology. So, when you’re 90 you will have access not just to the same therapies that you had 30 years ago, but to improved ones that can repair a whole bunch of the damage that the first-generation ones couldn’t. So they will work. They still won’t be 100 percent perfect, but they won’t need to be; they will just need to be good enough to ‘re-rejuvenate’ you so that you won’t be biologically 60 for the third time until you’re chronologically 150 or whatever. And so on.

Now, I totally acknowledge that I don’t know what these second-generation and later therapies will actually comprise. But that is no excuse for denigration — for taking the position that such advances definitely won’t materialise in time.

What is more important in reducing aging: medical therapies, drugs or lifestyle changes?

I’m all for lifestyle optimisation, but you have phrased your question as a comparison and, for sure, the answer is that lifestyle optimisation can only, ever, make a very small difference — a year or two — to how long we stay healthy and thereby to how long we live. Now, medicines and drugs that we have today are equally modest in their effects, and that’s why people die today at ages only slightly older than their parents. But within the next couple of decades we have, I believe, a very good chance to change that scenario completely.

What are you doing personally to extend your life?

I’m actually a rather poor example to follow in terms of longevity — although for good reasons. In particular, I definitely don’t get enough sleep, because I spend my life running around the world educating people about this mission. At the end of the day, I’m not driven by the goal to fractionally increase my chance of making the anti-aging cut. What gets me out of bed in the morning is the humanitarian imperative: the knowledge that every single day by which I hasten the defeat of aging saves 100,000 lives.

If we did extend the lifespan of adults by even 100 years, would we have to implement a global one-child policy to avoid overpopulation?

This and many other concerns about the problems that we might create by solving today’s aging problem have one big thing in common: they are founded upon the implicit assumption that a post-aging world would be very like today’s world in every other way. To use this as an example: the only reason why we might have to curtail the birth rate if we were to reduce the death rate is if we did not simultaneously increase the planet’s carrying capacity. But we seem to be doing rather well in developing renewable energy, artificial meat, desalination — the list goes on. So is it a plausible scenario that in decades to come the population would increase faster than the carrying capacity increases? Of course not.

Is anyone testing your therapies at the moment on humans?

Sure, but only a subset of them. Some of the easiest components of SENS are already in clinical trials, such as stem cells for Parkinson’s disease. Others, including ones spun out from SENS Research Foundation’s research, may get there within a year or two. But some are probably 10-15 years out still. Those ones are just as critical as the easier ones, so we are working as hard as we can to accelerate them, but we’re devastatingly limited in that regard by shortage of funds.

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