Living to 1,000: The man who says science will soon defeat ageing
Aubrey de Grey is one of the world’s leading – and most talked-about – biomedical gerontologists
Meet the man who believes that the first person to live to 1,000 years of age has already been born.
Aubrey de Grey is one of the chief proponents of research utilising genomics to explore longevity.
An Englishman living in California, Dr de Grey is a biomedical gerontologist who co-founded the SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence) Research Foundation in 2009. It explores the use of regenerative medicine to repair the damage underlying the diseases of ageing. Doing so, it is hoped, will improve our ‘healthspan’ – the length of time for which we enjoy good health.
Dr de Grey is listed at the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Science and Policy as the chief scientific officer for the SENS Foundation. He received a BA in Computer Science in 1985 and a Ph.D. in Biology from the University of Cambridge in 2000, and organised a series of conferences on longevity in the city in 2003.
He tells the Cambridge Independent: “SENS Research Foundation has a couple of dozen employees and other dependents, such as PhD students who depend on us for their salaries. Our mission is clear: the medical defeat of ageing via damage repair.”
The longevity theory is essentially about preventing people from getting sick. The model takes an engineering approach to human life. The aim is to use rejuvenation biotechnologies directly to remove, repair, replace, or render harmless the cellular and molecular damage caused by the biological ageing process.
And if you can reduce the process of degradation to the point where it never crosses the threshold of causing a life-threatening disease, we could effectively defeat ageing – and live to 1,000, or perhaps longer.
“The 1,000-year number is purely a ball-park estimate of the average lifespan – and even then, it’s in the context of today’s risk of death from causes that don’t arise from ageing, so it’s almost certainly very conservative,” Dr de Grey says.
Would he want to live that long?
“I don’t want to get sick, and I don’t expect ever to want to get sick, however long I live,” he replies. “What I can’t imagine is ever basing my view of how bad it would be to get sick on how long ago I was born.
“As for what other people can imagine, well, that’s rather dictated by whether the media remind them that long life can and will only happen as a side-effect of staying truly youthful, as opposed to focusing on the longevity side-effect as if it were the goal in and of itself.”
Explaining his motives for wanting to solve ageing in his TED Talk, Dr de Grey put it succinctly: “Getting frail and miserable and dependent is no fun.”
He believes we’re in a trance if we believe otherwise. And he dealt with those who suggest living to 1,000 might be boring, cause starvation and put dictators in charge for ever, not to mention play havoc with our pensions, with this verdict on such arguments: “These are completely crazy when you remember your sense of proportion. Are these so bad that they outweigh condemning 100,000 people a day to an unnecessarily early death?”
What of overpopulation though?
Dr de Grey acknowledges that humanity will face a dilemma. We’ll need to decide whether to have a low birth rate or maintain a high death rate by rejecting such therapies. But there is a third way, he suggests.
“I believe that we will reduce the impact of the average person on the environment far faster than we increase global population, even without continued reductions in birth rate.”
So does he believe it would be possible to turn off the menopause?
“The ovary is just another organ – and indeed there has already been plenty of progress in ovary reconstruction and rejuvenation,” he points out. Failure to explore the potential of longevity, he argues, would be immoral.
He describes ageing as the result of our metabolism – the hugely complex set of homeostatic processes that keep us alive from day to day – eventually causing pathology, the hugely complex set of anti-homeostatic processes that kill us. In other words, our self-repair processes are not perfect.
While geriatricians will look to deal with pathology and try to hold back the sands of time, gerontologists aim to work with metabolism on the basis that prevention is better than cure.
Dr de Grey says we have discovered only seven types of damage that lead to pathology – such as cell loss and mutations in chromosomes. In principle, he says we know how to fix these in mice with a range of techniques, like cell therapy, growth factors and the expression of proteins.
Given sufficient funding, which he describes as the biggest challenge, he believes it will be possible to rejuvenate an ageing mouse within a decade. Fifteen years from that point, he argues the first therapies could be available within humans.
Bad news for 80-somethings: the initial experimental therapies we’re about to invent will be too late for you, he suggests. But if you’re only 50 “then there’s a chance you may be able to pull out of the dive”.
And intriguingly, he believes the first person to live to be 1,000 will probably only be 10 years younger than the first 150-year-old.
“It’s all about what I’ve called ‘longevity escape velocity’,” he tells us. This refers to the fact that ultimately technological advances will increase life expectancy more than the year that just went by.
In other words, Dr de Grey is clear that we’re not about to invent some incredible therapy that will enable us live to 1,000. But if we can deliver therapies that give a middle-aged person an extra 30 years of life expectancy, then by the time they get there, we’ll have further therapies to extend their life again. That’s how we’ll continue to stay ahead of the ageing process and, thanks to this incremental progress, he believes the first people who will live to 1,000 are already breathing.
There is considerable focus today on epigenetics – changes in gene expression that don’t affect our underlying DNA code. So is this part of the plan? Not so much, apparently.
“Epigenetic changes during ageing tend to be good things – deliberate changes that cells make, in order to minimise and delay the impact of other types of damage,” says Dr de Grey says. “Our work focuses on eliminating that damage; once we do so, the epigenetic changes will become unnecessary and will probably reverse themselves spontaneously.”
Nor is what we eat a particularly significant factor in defeating ageing, he suggests.
“Diets are really not very important in all this. One may be able to obtain a very modest postponement of ageing by dietary choices, but only very modest relative to just basically doing what your mother said – not getting seriously overweight, and being reasonably varied in terms of fruit and veg. I don’t follow any special diet,” he adds.
Let’s assume he’s right, then, and humans start living to 1,000. Won’t we run out of food for us all?
“The elimination of age-related ill-health will not make problems for the food supply, because other technologies, such as renewable energy and artificial meat and desalination, will be well-established years before the end of ageing,” he suggests.
Living to 1,000 – or more – raises all sorts of philosophical questions about what it means to be human, but Dr de Grey says: “I find so-called philosophical discussions of this issue to be a wholly counter-productive distraction, founded not in philosophy but psychology, ie the fear of believing that this time, finally, after so many false dawns throughout the history of civilisation, we may finally be about to overcome our oldest and most formidable adversary.”