Dr. Aubrey de Grey, a biomedical gerontologist, joins Jason Hartman on this episode to discuss how close we’re getting to finding the proverbial Fountain of Youth. Dr. de Grey explains that the aging process is simply the collection of early stages of the illusion of old age, i.e. cell damage and loss. He said the accumulation of aging side effects leads to the diseases and conditions of old age that we do not notice during younger ages. He describes the human body as a machine, albeit a very complicated and complex machine, and therefore, it should come as no surprise that the body breaks down over time. Dr. de Grey and the SENS Foundation have a plan to repair various areas of cell damage and cell loss through processes such as stem cell replacement therapies to slow the aging process. For more details, listen at: www.HolisticSurvival.com. Dr. de Grey talks about the science, the research, the obstacles and the funding of this important work. He assures us that once this work is up and running, it will be the real deal allowing people to look and feel younger, but he stresses that this would be preventative care. Jason and Dr. de Grey also address the implications of slowing the aging process on the world population, the age to which people continue to work, pensions, and our carbon footprint.
Dr. Aubrey de Grey is a biomedical gerontologist based in Cambridge, UK and Mountain View, California, USA, and is the Chief Science Officer of SENS Foundation, a California-based 501(c)(3) charity dedicated to combating the aging process. He is also Editor-in-Chief of Rejuvenation Research, the world’s highest-impact peer-reviewed journal focused on intervention in aging. He received his BA and Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge in 1985 and 2000 respectively. His original field was computer science, and he did research in the private sector for six years in the area of software verification before switching to biogerontology in the mid-1990s. His research interests encompass the characterisation of all the accumulating and eventually pathogenic molecular and cellular side-effects of metabolism (“damage”) that constitute mammalian aging and the design of interventions to repair and/or obviate that damage. He has developed a possibly comprehensive plan for such repair, termed Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS), which breaks aging down into seven major classes of damage and identifies detailed approaches to addressing each one. A key aspect of SENS is that it can potentially extend healthy lifespan without limit, even though these repair processes will probably never be perfect, as the repair only needs to approach perfection rapidly enough to keep the overall level of damage below pathogenic levels. Dr. de Grey has termed this required rate of improvement of repair therapies “longevity escape velocity”. Dr. de Grey is a Fellow of both the Gerontological Society of America and the American Aging Association, and sits on the editorial and scientific advisory boards of numerous journals and organizations.
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Start of Interview with Dr. Aubrey De Grey
Jason Hartman: My pleasure to welcome Dr. Aubrey De Grey to the show. He is an expert on aging. And actually I should say, aging intervention. He is a biomedical gerontologist and he is the chief science officer for the Sens Foundation. Dr. Grey, welcome. How are you?
Aubrey De Grey: I am very well, thank you. Thank you for having me on the show.
Jason Hartman: My pleasure. And you’re coming to us from San Jose, California today but you are based in England I believe, right?
Aubrey De Grey: Well, really I’m based in both places these days. I travel from one side of the Atlantic to the other all the time so I have a lot of air miles.
Jason Hartman: Fantastic. Well aging, since the beginning of time people have been looking for the fountain of youth. And are we getting any closer to finding it?
Aubrey De Grey: Well, of course it depends quite what you mean by the fountain of youth. But if we just speak generally about bringing aging under proper medical control, under in other words, the same sort of level of medical control that we already have today over most infectious diseases, then for sure we are indeed getting closer. I would say that we are within as little as 25 years, probably. Of course we can’t be certain until it happens but I’d say we have at least a 50/50 chance of reaching that level of control over aging within 25 years. Just as long as the research that’s going on right now is adequately funded and moved forward in a manner that is only limited by the difficulty of the science.
Jason Hartman: And so when you say bringing under medical control, the same kind of control that we have infectious diseases under finally after all this time, what does that mean? Does that mean stopping the clock? Does that mean living to 120, 150 or 300 years old? Kind of define that for us.
Aubrey De Grey: Right. What it means is understanding and exploiting the fact that aging is simply the collection of early stages of the illusion of old age. The reason that the diseases and disabilities of old age are of old age, in other words that they do not affect young adults, is because they are aspects of the later stages of the process that does go on throughout life but which is initially harmless and that’s the process we call aging. So the types of therapy that we are likely to see in the next few decades that will bring that under control are therapies that actually repair that damage. In other words, restore the molecular and cellular composition and structure of the body, each individual organ and the body as a whole, back to how it was in an earlier age. In or close to early adulthood.
So it would typically end up taking someone in middle age or older, maybe 60 or 70, and genuinely rejuvenating them. Restoring their structure and therefore of course their function both mental and physical to how it was maybe 30 years previously. And this would be something that we would do periodically. We would certainly never be able to do one off treatment that would make someone completely non aging, such that they would never exhibit any kind of dysfunction or disease however long they lived even in the absence of subsequent treatments. But that’s not the proposal. The proposal is a periodic treatment that repairs the damage every so often so that it doesn’t continue to accumulate to a level that causes later stages in disability.
Jason Hartman: What is it that’s causing us to age? A friend of mine talks about, and I kind of agree, that it seems to be that our cells are just copy machines and at some point they just get worn out and they don’t replicate anymore. Is that the degeneration process that occurs or is it something else?
Aubrey De Grey: There’s much more to it than that. There has to be much more to it than that, because of course a lot of our cells don’t divide. A lot of our cells just hang out and do what they’re supposed to do without dividing. All of our neurons, for example, are like that. And it actually turns out that most of the problems of aging actually occur in those non-dividing cells. The cells that divide have certain problems but those problems are somewhat easier to solve. So there’s a lot of detail to it.
There’s a lot of different types of damage that happen. Some of them to dividing cells, some of them to non-dividing cells. And of course some of them to cells in one organ, some of them a different type of damage in another organ. But what it’s all about here, is simple side effects of the normal operation of the machine that we call the human body. And that is really the right way to think about aging. Because that brings it down to the fact that the body is a machine. A ridiculously complicated machine, but still a machine and therefore it’s no surprise that it should age in just the same way that simple man made machines age as an inevitable side effect of its normal functioning.
Jason Hartman: So do you have an idea of where this arresting of the aging process will come from? I mean did we take a big leap forward when we mapped the genome?
Aubrey De Grey: We certainly have a very good idea about where to move forward. And that’s why Sems Foundation exists, because we have a particular plan. A plan that I first formulated back in 2000 and which has actually stood the test of time after a very brief period of refinement. It’s more or less been unchanged for the past decade. And this plan essentially revolves around the classification of the various types of damage I’m talking about into a manageable number of categories, such that within each category more or less the same type of intervention, the same type of treatment, should be able to repair the type of damage.
There are various types of damage we could say exist at the cellular level, and others at the molecular level. But for each one we have a very detailed clear idea about what we need to do to fix it. And of course in some cases we’re a lot closer than in other cases but that’s okay. In all cases we know where we’re going on this. So that’s pretty good news. We actually have a research plan; A biomedical research plan that should get us to this point.
Jason Hartman: Amazing. So how does that look? I mean what is it? Is it a combination of factors? Or tell me about what Sems is doing.
Aubrey De Grey: It’s certainly a combination of factors, yes. So the plan that we have in terms of the classification of the types of damage that we need to fix, we normally talk about 7 major types of damage and for each of those types there’s a particular research program, a particular way of fixing is. So to give you just one example, it’d take me too long to go through all of them, one example is cell loss. In other words, cells dying and not being automatically replaced by the division of other cells. This happens to various parts of the body during aging and sometimes it is the main factor responsible for a particular type of disease. A nice, good example is Parkinson’s Disease which is caused by the loss of cells in a particular part of the brain called the Substantia Nigra. And the way we fix cell loss is very simple. It’s called stem cell therapy.
Stem cell therapy is all about putting cells into the body that have been prepared outside in the lab into a state such that they will divide and become the types of cells that have died and not been automatically replaced. So that we restore the number of cells, the cellularity as people call it, of the organ so that the organ still works.
Jason Hartman: So restore the cellularity, and we do this through stem cells. Talk to us a little bit about, if you would, the debate over the use of stem cells. What type of stem cells are these?
Aubrey De Grey: Well, basically we’re not…well the debate about what type of stem cells to use is nearly over. I won’t say it’s completely over yet but it’s looking like the main problems that exist is in terms of identifying cells that could do what we wanted or needed to do but could be obtained in a manner that didn’t conflict with certain people’s ethics. That problem has gone away because we discovered other ways of making the same cells.
The big breakthrough was made 5 or 6 years ago when a group in Japan figured out how to take normal cells that weren’t even stem cells at all and just, what you might call dedifferentiate them. Turn them back into a more primitive state that was very, very similar to a regular embryonic stem cell. And this meant that we could create cells of that nature without destroying embryos. So all of the ethical debates which was all about the need to destroy embryos became irrelevant. Now, it’s a little more complicated than that.
Firstly because these cells are not precisely the same as embryonic stem cells and therefore people are still nervous that they won’t quite work as well. And secondly because you may have of course new ethical problems for whatever new way you have for creating a different type of stem cell. But at the moment it’s looking like by and large, the problem has gone away.
Jason Hartman: So that’s good. If that has largely gone away then that’s good progress. What are the big obstacles to this, and I don’t want to just talk about the science. The funding obstacles of really speeding up the process of getting to the arrest of the aging process. What do we need to do, I mean how much money does this take? How much research and does it come from governments, venture capital?
Aubrey De Grey: So the scientific obstacles are certainly daunting, no question. I’m not going to belittle that, but as I say, we do have a very clear plan of action of how to move forward and furthermore the leading scientists around the world, who are best placed to actually implement this plan, perform this work, are very hot to trot. They’re very enthusiastic about getting going on this. But yes, you’re quite right. There’s a third ingredient that’s required. You don’t just need a plan, you don’t just need scientists, you also need the resources, the financing to actually do this inevitably expensive work. And that is the limiting step right now.
I would say that over the past 6 or 8 years since I’ve been talking and yearly advocating on all of this, we’ve probably moved forward only at about one third the amount that we could have done if funding had not been a limiting factor. And that means we’ve lost a lot of lives. It means we have delayed the development into these therapies. So you’re quite right that it’s all about how this money can be obtained. And the way I always look at it is there are essentially three sources of money, three types of sources of this money. One could be the private sector, a bunch of capitalists, angel investors, and so on. But these people tend to want to make their money back quickly. They tend to want an exit strategy that’s closer than 20 or 30 years which is the sort of thing that I’m talking about. So that’s a real challenge. We haven’t really made much progress in getting the private sector involved except in those areas of regenerative medicine that are much closer to market. A lot of sens, which is all about regenerative medicine of course, a lot of sens is earlier stage than that.
So then there’s the government. Now surely they’re the people who are supposed to fund early stage work. But unfortunately the difficulty there, and I’m sure you’re going to want to come back to this in the rest of the interview, is that the general public are very ambivalent about aging. They don’t have a good understanding about what treating aging really means and why it really is just medicine, why it really is just preventative medicine for the diseases of old age. And they’re ambivalent about it. And of course that means there’s no voting and that means it’s hard to get governments to do much about it. So as things stand, we have overwhelmingly received our funding from the third potential source, namely philanthropy.
Jason Hartman: Okay, so philanthropy’s really the biggest. Well that’s surprising to me by the way. Because when you say the general public is ambivalent about it, gosh you look at this youth oriented culture…it’s not just in the states but it’s around the world, that plastic surgery, the medi spas, the cosmetic industry; it’s a giant, giant industry. Are you saying the medical version of aging interruption is not a looks thing, it’s just a health thing only? Or when these treatments are applied to people 25 years from now, will they also look younger or just internally be and feel younger?
Aubrey De Grey: So first of all, to answer that last part, absolutely. When we get these therapies working people will look and feel and function just like young adults. It will be the real McCoy, the real deal, the whole package. But to answer your question about ambivalence, the thing here is that people seem to be happy with the idea that it would be good to age a bit more slowly, to actually be unusually healthy for your age, and then to keel over in your sleep at the age of 95 without too much pain. They’re up for that.
But when we talk about doing the job properly, actually bringing aging completely under medical control, then there is an extraordinarily ubiquitous knee-jerk reaction to think in terms of longevity as the point. What would I do with all that time, or how will we pay all the pensions or where would we put all the people or wouldn’t dictators live forever? These are the things that dominate people’s thinking, rather than hello, we’ve got a problem today of people getting sick and suffering enormously as a result of aging. So I think really the job for people like me and I think for anyone who’s interested in promoting this mission, so someone like you for example, who is taking the trouble to have me on the radio.
The job for us is to educate people; to understand that this is just preventative medicine for aging, for the diseases of old age. If you don’t want to get Alzheimer’s, then this is the sort of research that you want to make happen. And happen sooner rather than later. If you don’t want to get Cardiovascular disease, it’s the same research that we need to hasten.
Jason Hartman: I never thought of the aspect of won’t dictators live forever. That’s a bit of a scary one. Because ultimately regimes tumble because they die and many times the new people that take over are not as bad as the one who left. That’s an interesting point. But in terms of the pension issue, I mean, that’s certainly something that people would initially think, but if they’re feeling younger, looking younger, truly being younger, wont they just work longer?
Aubrey De Grey: Well first of all I want to come back to your dictator thing. I didn’t say the dictator thing was scary. I think it’s one of the most unreasonable reasons to [0:16:29.5]…the dictator does come fairly high on the [0:16:34.5].
Jason Hartman: I’m not that concerned about it; I just thought it was interesting that you brought it up. It never even occurred to me.
Aubrey De Grey: Yeah, I brought it up because other people bring it up. Not because it makes any kind of sense. It makes no sense at all. Pensions, you’re absolutely right. There’s a reason why we feel as a society that it’s reasonable to pay people a reasonable amount of money to do nothing from the age of 65. The reason we think that’s a sensible thing to do is because we’re very sorry for people who are over 65 and the reason we’re sorry for them is because they’re about to die. So the whole social contract completely changes, has to be rebuilt from square one when people’s amount of remaining healthy life is no longer related to how long they’ve been alive so far.
Jason Hartman: Yeah, it’s all about that social contract so that changes the idea of the pensions. I guess the people that would really have a problem is the environmentalists who think that people are destroying the planet. That would be the group that I think would be maybe the big objection right?
Aubrey De Grey: Well, you’re quite right. There’s an enormous amount of opposition based on the problem of, or the perceived problem of overpopulation; which is ultimately what every environmental concern comes down to. It’s okay. Its fine to have 7 billion people on the planet, the problem is there are 7 billion people, each of whom is doing significant damage to the planet. So then we have to ask a few things. First of all, how do we know that’s not going to change? Supposing 50 years from now we have nuclear fusion as the main source of energy. So then suddenly people have a tiny fraction of their current carbon foot print and that will make a significant difference to how much damage we do to the planet. We also don’t know how many children people are going to want to have. We know that fertility rates are going down all the time, we also know that people or that women are having their children later than average all the time.
And of course when we don’t have menopause anymore, which is one thing that’s going to happen, then people can have their children later and later without any risk of any kind of genetic abnormality and so on. So there’s an awful lot of specifics there that we have to take into account and when we evaluate the potential magnitude of any problem of this nature. But also we have to remember that today we have already a world in which we are making the choice to have fewer kids than we used to simply because kids are surviving.
Two hundred years ago when people were pioneering the idea of hygiene saving lives, it was rather successful. We went down from having literally forty percent of babies dying before the age of one, to a tiny proportion like one or two percent. And if you put yourself back in that, you were Louis Pasteur, standing up in front of an audience, so the general public, and you say I’ve got this way of stopping all these infant deaths. And everyone cheers and then some troublemaker at the back says hang on, hang on, there’s going to be a terrible overpopulation problem…They ask you what your answer is and you say it’s going to be fine. Everyone is going to submit to this barbaric indignity of wearing all these rubber contraptions whenever they have sex, they’re not going to believe you.
Jason Hartman: Right. Or the same with Joseph Lister or anybody who’s discovered ways to prolong or save lives. But that actually leads to sort of an interesting question. If you look in the past, there are many people in antiquity or at least hundreds of years ago that lived to be 80, 90 years old. Are we really living any longer or are we just dying less? Because when you look at the hygiene issue or the malaria issues and things like that, those aren’t killing people off as much. But the very top life span, I wonder if it’s really gone up at all. I guess the oldest person has been or is now about 120. Is that correct?
Aubrey De Grey: So you are absolutely right that we can’t necessarily say that there has been no increase, but we can certainly say that the increase in maximum life span is certainly much less than average life span. Because we have made the greatest impact on diminishing early deaths. The question is what can we learn from this? I think what it tells us is only that the interventions that we’ve developed so far, whether they be actual bonafide medical interventions or whether they be just life style and prosperity interventions that will allow people to have a better time and so on. Those interventions have made a modest impact, if any, on the aging process.
And since they’ve only had a modest impact, we haven’t seen extensive increase in the maximum lifespan. But that tells us nothing at all about what we could expect to see in terms of increasing maximum lifespan when we develop new medicines that we haven’t got yet. There’s every reason to believe that medicines can in principle be developed which will extend healthy lifespan and therefore as a side effect, total lifespan, vastly more than anyone’s achieved so far.
Jason Hartman: What will happen, I know that you don’t know the answer to this yet, but what might happen to one’s brain as the aging process is being reversed? Maybe you roll the clock back 30 years but do they still have all of the same memories and experience? I would easily say I would love to be 22 again knowing everything I know now. And I think a lot of people have felt that way. But I don’t necessarily want to be 22 again knowing what I knew when I was actually 22. I love the wisdom that comes with a few years, for sure.
Aubrey De Grey: I assure you that we are not proposing to eliminate people’s wisdom and set them back to knowing what they did when they were a young adult. The idea here is that memory is a plastic thing already. Memory and every aspect of one’s personality and one’s wisdom and so on, is stored in the brain in a very distributer way so that it’s not like one fact is stored in one neuron or in one synaptic connection.
That means that if we were to maintain the structure and the composition of the brain indefinitely in a youthful state, there would continue to be this equilibrium where we learn new things as we experience them and we forget other things. But we don’t forget everything of course because when we record a memory, that process reinforces the memory. So the things we forget are the things that we learned a long time ago but also the things that have not been relevant to our lives so we haven’t been recalling them. And that’s sort of okay. I can’t remember half the names of the people I went to school with but I know and that doesn’t bother me. So we can imagine that however long we live, there will continue to be this equilibrium.
There will be this spectrum of how long ago something happened that we remember and that spectrum will become more and more spread out but the things that we remember are the things that we want to remember. So it’s really not something to be concerned about.
Jason Hartman: Well, what else should people know about this? I guess maybe I’d like to definitely get this question in before you go. What do you think the treatments will be? Will they be some sort of machine, a magic pill, something that you do over time maybe by ingesting something in your digestive system? What will happen? How might these treatments come about?
Aubrey De Grey: This is likely to change over time actually. It’s likely not to be something obvious from the beginning. Right at the beginning when these therapies become available, large part of it may involve surgery. It may involve replacing whole organs with artificial organs for example. However I’m pretty sure that after not very long at all, maybe a decade or so, the therapies will have been improved to the point where it can all be done in a much less invasive way. So stem cell therapies, which essentially involve injection into the blood stream, gene therapies which also are done typically by injection into the blood stream, you have in this case engineered viruses usually. Things like that. And indeed some of it, and an increasing amount of it may just be done by oral administration as you say. Whether those sorts of things are also vaccines or other more straight forward pharmaceutical interventions. The mode of delivery is going to change over time and it’s going to change in the direction of becoming more and more convenient and less and less invasive.
Jason Hartman: Of all the things that are out now, whether it be vitamin supplements or diet in general or anything else out there, is there any sort of anti-aging treatment today, hgh, different supplementation and things like that, are any of these things legitimate or are they all just skirting the issue?
Aubrey De Grey: I think skirting the issue is probably the right phrase. Because these things, I wouldn’t call them all illegitimate, but they definitely don’t get to the root of aging. You don’t live 20 years longer or 5 years longer as a result of any of these therapies. Some people are just unlucky. They’re aging unusually rapidly and that is reasonable evidence that in many cases we can somewhat normalize the person’s rate of aging by simple interventions. But if you’re already normal, especially if you’re already doing better than normal, then at this point we can pretty much say that at this point there is nothing that will significantly make you better still. And that’s why the priority needs to be to do whatever we can to hasten the development of therapies we don’t yet have.
Jason Hartman: How do you know if you’re aging at a normal rate? Or if you’re above or below normal?
Aubrey De Grey: Yeah, that’s a great question. And of course at one level we just don’t know. Because aging is such a complicated thing, with so many ways in which you might die, that in order to decide what your biological age is, what you’re doing is essentially arbitrarily combining a bunch of numbers that are semi-independent into one number as if that meant something. But still, one can certainly look at all the various things we know about that typically change with age in everyone and ask why are you in that spectrum? Are you average for someone your age or are you average for someone younger or are you average for someone older?
And one can get a general idea. I’ve certainly had such tests and I’m pleased to say that in almost all of them I come out looking biologically younger than my chronological age. It’s not a really robust, rigorous, statistically meaningful thing. But it’s still an indication.
Jason Hartman: And in the mean time you can go to websites like realage.com, right? Again, not very hardcore but interesting to some extent. Do you have anything to say about that?
Aubrey De Grey: Sure. Like that or indeed even much more high end tests that one would have. For me, it’s not that number that you get at the end that matters. What matters is the individual data, the specific measurements, the raw data shall we say, about the various components of aging. Because those things will tell you something at least about your risk of particular types of aging, particular aspects of aging that can lead to particular diseases that you might die of.
Jason Hartman: Sure. Very good. Well Dr. Aubrey De Grey, thank you so much for this insight today. This is something that we will all be looking forward to and hoping that the future brings great things for life extension and quality of life extension as well. Give out your website if you would and tell people where they can learn more.
Aubrey De Grey: Sure, yes. I would love the audience to go to our website. It’s sens.org. And we have not only the basic information about what the charity does, what work we fund but also a whole bunch of answers to all the questions you might have about science and also about the social context of all of this. Also of course, going there will allow you to contact us directly, send me an Email and generally get involved. And of course, if you are so minded, to contribute financially. We’re a charity, we’re a 501c3, so any US citizen gets tax relief on anything they give us and of course that’s how we manage to do what we do.
Jason Hartman: Fantastic. Well keep up the good work out there and thank you so much for joining us today.
Aubrey De Grey: It’s my pleasure. Thank you for having me on the show.
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Transcribed by Ralph
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