Scientists are waging a war against aging. But then what?


“I understand that in order to set great goals you need willpower.” - Aubrey de Gray

We all grow old. We all die.

For Aubrey de Gray, the biogerontologist and principal supervisor of the SENS Research Foundation , it is not enough just to accept these truths. Closer to thirty (now he is 54), he decided that he wanted to “change humanity”, and that the victory over aging is the best way to do it. The fight against the laws of physics and biology - the two factors of the destruction of the organism - has become a matter of its life.

He calls it "war with age."

Gray considers aging an engineering problem. The human body is a machine, he told me during the interview, and like any machine, it can be maintained in working condition for an arbitrarily long time.

So he thinks not only. There is a numerous and growing anti-aging movement. As New Yorker Ted Frend describes in a recent essay vividly, multimillion-dollar venture capital investments are focused on life extension research, both promising and not so much. The main investors are Peter Thiel, a billionaire, co-founder of PayPal (he is also the patron saint of Gray's organization).

Gray's work is especially interesting. For too long, he says, scientists have taken the wrong approach to finding a solution. Aging cannot be explained on the basis of a single factor. We grow old because many of the physical systems of our body begin to fail at the same time, while exacerbating the mutual negative influence. Therefore, he developed the so-called “divide and conquer” strategy, highlighting seven known causes of aging and looking for his own solution for each. Whether it is cell loss or harmful mitochondrial mutations, each problem, according to Gray, in its essence has a physical basis and is therefore solvable.

But even if this promethean problem is solved, many questions remain open.

If we develop these anti-aging technologies, who will have access to them? Will inequality increase in a world free from aging? And how many additional resources are needed for people living 200 or 300 or 500 years? There are barely enough resources for 7 billion people living on average 70 years (women live 3-5 years longer than men), and there is already a shortage of food and water, and global warming continues.

Gray, to his credit, had already considered these problems. I am not sure that he is aware of the political consequences of this technology, in particular, the level of state coercion that will be required.

But in the face of difficult questions, he firmly defends his project.

How anti-aging treatments will work

Shaun Illing : Is it possible to simply describe, from the point of view of theory, how anti-aging therapies you work on will work - what will they do for the body?

Aubrey de Gray : Oh, not only from the point of view of theory. The only reason this whole approach continues to be discussed is that 15 or 17 years ago I was able to list and classify all types of damage. We have been studying aging for a long time by the time I started working in this area in the mid-90s, and after reading the results, I was pleased to know that aging has actually been studied quite well.

Scientists prefer to say that aging is poorly understood because the task of scientists is to conduct research, so they have to tell people that nothing has been learned, but in fact it is nonsense. The fact is that aging has been studied well enough, and the best thing about it is that we can not only list the different types of damage that the body causes to itself throughout life, we can also categorize them, classify them into a different number of categories.

So, I talked about the seven categories of damage, and I argue that this classification includes all types of damage. We know how people age, we understand the mechanism of aging. There is no eighth category that we missed. More importantly, for each category there is a general approach to the solution, which in practice implements the approach of supporting procedures, which I describe, to repair damage

Sean Illing : Can you give an example of one of these categories and what is the approach to the solution?

Aubrey de Gray : One example is cell loss. The loss of cells simply means that the cells die and are not replaced automatically by the division of other cells, which gradually occurs in some tissues and this is definitely the driving factor of some aspects of aging. Take, for example, Parkinson's disease. It is caused by a progressive loss of a certain type of neuron that produces dopamine in a certain area of ​​the brain.

And what is the general solution to cell loss? Obviously, the use of stem cells. They apply. We reprogram the cells in the laboratory into a state where they can be introduced into the body and they will divide and differentiate, replacing those cells that the body does not replace itself. And now the use of stem cells for the treatment of Parkinson's disease seems very promising.

Aging is a problem of engineering, not biological sciences.

Shaun Illing : So it is better to perceive aging as an engineering problem that can be reversed or stabilized?

Aubrey de Gray : Exactly. This is a technical field. All medicine is a field of technical science. It is a way to manipulate the processes that are taking place, so it’s just part of medicine

Sean Illing : But you are not really trying to solve the problem of death or even aging. This is all about eliminating damage associated with aging.

Aubrey de Gray : Definitely, the goal is to eliminate the damage accumulated over the course of a lifetime, and it's up to you to call this “the solution to the problem of aging”.

Shaun Illing : What do you think is the most promising research area at the moment?

Aubrey de Gray : The great news is that we have this “divide and conquer” strategy, which allows us to divide a common problem into seven problems and work with each one separately. This means that we are constantly moving in all seven directions. We work with them in parallel. In fact, we do little work in the field of cell therapy simply because a large number of people are already working in this area and all the really important results are obtained by someone else, so this is not the best way to use our funds.

We are a very small organization. Our annual budget is only 4 million dollars and we are forced to distribute this amount among a large number of projects. We definitely get results. Over the past year, we have published articles in serious scientific journals on a number of major research programs; there is not one area that would stand out in particular.

A dream of a world without aging

Sean Illing : What do you say to those who see this project as a quixotic march for immortality, just another example of how humanity is trying to go beyond its borders?

Aubrey de Gray : Basically, sympathy. I understand that willpower is needed in order to set great goals, to try to achieve what no one can achieve, which no one has done before. Especially with regard to what people have been trying to do for a long time. I understand that most people do not have such determination, and I don’t blame them for it. I feel sorry for them.

Of course, the problem is that they create difficulties for me, because I need to raise funds for the implementation of this project. Fortunately, there are people who have the determination and the means, which allows us to move forward.

Ultimately, the fact is that aging has been the problem of humanity number one since the beginning of time, and this is a problem that we did not have a systematic approach to before, so we had no choice but to not think about it and continue living our very short lives and try to make the most of our time, rather than constantly worrying about the terrible thing that will happen to us in a relatively distant future. It is reasonable. I see no problems here.

The problem is that we suddenly found ourselves in another world, where we are very close to the practical implementation of the plan that will work, and now this defeatist approach, this fatalism, this humility has become a huge part of the problem, because once reconciled with something terrible is difficult start the fight again.

Moral issues

Sean Illing : Are there any ethical questions or doubts that would stop you?

Aubrey de Gray : No. When you come to understand that all this is just medicine questions, then the whole range of potential so-called ethical objections can be answered in one fell swoop. Are you for medicine or not? In order to have any so-called moral objections to our work, expressing them must adhere to the position that medicine for older people is acceptable only as long as it is ineffective, and this is a position that no one wants to take.

Sean Illing : I have no doubt that you have been asked this question, but in my opinion, it is too important to ignore. You talk enthusiastically about the transition to a world without aging, but many people are worried about the consequences of increasing life expectancy. We may not have a problem of overpopulation, but we definitely have a problem of inequality, and it seems we need more resources than we have. If 90% of people are dying from aging and suddenly people will live for 200 or 300 years, how can we manage to maintain the necessary economic growth?

Aubrey de Gray : First of all, thank you for noting that I have probably heard this question many times already, because this is so. You will be surprised how many people presented this question with the words: “But you didn’t think what would happen if” - as if they expressed a new thought.

But, yes, overpopulation is the most serious question that people have expressed, and I have three levels of answers to such questions. The first is the answer to a specific question asked. So, using the example of overpopulation, I note that the birth rate is already falling in many regions. And people often forget that overpopulation is not a question of how many people there are on the planet, but rather the difference between their number and the amount that can live on the planet, while maintaining an acceptable level of environmental impact, and this second number is, of course, not a constant; other technologies.

So, as we progress in renewable energy and other technologies, such as desalination to reduce pollution per person, we increase the number of people who can live on Earth and increase this figure, which can be expected over the next, say, 20 years significantly exceeds the population growth that can be expected with the exception of deaths from aging. That is my main answer.

The second level of the answer is the answer at the scale of the problem. Technologies will arise or not arise, in any case, in case of a worse development of events, we may have aggravated the problem of overpopulation compared with the current situation.

What does this mean? This means that in a world without aging, we will have a choice between using available technology and having more people with fewer children than they would like, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, current developments with the rejection of these technologies that support the health of older people and allow them to stay alive.

Ask yourself which option would you choose? Would you prefer your mother to have Alzheimer or have fewer children? It's a pretty easy choice, and people just don't make it.

The third level is perhaps the most convincing, and its essence lies in the question of who has the right to decide. In fact, if we say: “Oh, my, overpopulation, let's not do that. Let's not develop these technologies ”, - then we today postpone the appearance of these technologies in the future. Of course, over time, they will still be created. The question is how soon? It depends on how much effort we put in.

If we know this, then by our actions we postpone the emergence of this technology and thus we sentence a whole cohort of people in the future to the same death and disease, and the suffering that happens to people now in old age, while we could alleviate these suffering if we developed the right treatments on time.

I do not want to be responsible for bringing a significant number of people to death. I do not want to be in a similar situation. I think that there is a strong argument for developing these technologies as fast as possible.

Sean Illing : I accept your arguments, but it is much easier to give a theoretical answer to such questions than to solve them in practice. For example, we cannot simply “decide” that people should have fewer children without a potentially dangerous level of state coercion. The policy of such issues is difficult at best, at worst - it is a dystopia.

In any case, let me at least voice concern about one more issue. How do you estimate the cost of such technologies in case of their appearance. People involved in bioengineering, for example, worry that such technologies, if they are not accessible to everyone, will lead to an unprecedented and unstable level of inequality.

Aubrey de Gray : This is a valid concern. And the issue needs to be resolved, but, fortunately, as in the case of overpopulation, it is really easy to solve. Currently, in a situation with high-tech medicine, even in countries with a single medical insurance costs are limited to the price, since resources are limited.

But part of the problem is that our current treatment methods for the elderly are ineffective. At best, they postpone very little the deterioration of health, and then people get sick anyway and we spend all those funds that we would have if these treatments were not available, just to prolong the life of a person in a miserable condition.

Now compare this with the situation when the methods really work and the person remains healthy. Yes, he lives much longer and without a doubt, we may have to apply these methods of treatment several times, because this is the nature of these methods, so that we can talk about significant amounts. But, most importantly, these people will be healthy, so we don’t have to spend money on treating sick people, as we are doing now.

In addition, huge amounts will be saved indirectly. Children of older people will be more productive because they do not have to spend time caring for sick parents. Older people themselves will be in good physical shape and will be able to earn themselves, instead of simply consuming resources.

Of course, there is considerable uncertainty in such assessments, but there is absolutely no way to do the calculations, which does not lead to the conclusion that these treatments are fast and repeated self-sufficiency.

That is what this means from the point of view of states - besides the fact that it will not be politically impossible not to support this project - the rejection of it will be an economic suicide. The country will go bankrupt because other countries will ensure the health of their labor resources. The world will allocate huge funds to provide access to therapy for everyone who needs it.

We can be closer to a world free from aging than it seems.

Shaun Illing : When will the methods you develop be ready for human testing?

Aubrey de Gray : This will occur gradually over the next 20 years. Each component of the SENS technique will have value in itself as a method of treating one or more diseases of the elderly, and some of them are already undergoing clinical trials. Some of them are much harder to implement, and the full return from them will be visible only when they are all combined, which will not happen so soon.

Sean Illing : How confident are you that anyone living in our time will not fear death from aging?

Aubrey de Gray : The outlook is good. Of course, these are technologies that are being developed, so we can only guess. The time estimates will be very approximate, but I think that we have a 50% chance of achieving the “second cosmic speed” of life - the points when we postpone the onset of age-related diseases faster than a person ages and people will always stay one step ahead of the problem. I think we have a 50% chance to reach this point in the next 20 years, which depends only on the improved funding for early stage research.

Sean Illing : The second cosmic is an interesting analogy. The bottom line is to continue to pour resources into a biological fuel tank faster than it is emptied, always a step ahead of the aging process?

Aubrey de Gray : Exactly. We are talking about anti-aging technology, and this means that they roll back the biological clock back. They return the body to a state similar or similar to the one in which it was previously, and not just stop or slow down the hands of a biological clock. Every time when using such therapy, the patient receives an extra lifetime, but the problem becomes more difficult, because the repaired damages will again accumulate and all the problems that are not completely resolved will also have to be partially resolved. The idea is that we will asymptotically approach the elimination of 100% damage, but there will never be a need to achieve their complete elimination. It will only be necessary to maintain the overall level of damage below a certain acceptable threshold.

Learn more about the work of de Gray can be on SENS .

Translation done Pattern, SENS Volunteers group


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