Dr. Aubrey de Grey – What Causes Human Aging and How to Reverse Aging?

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Dr. Aubrey de Grey PhD
Dr. Aubrey de Grey PhD

Dr. Aubrey de Grey is a biomedical gerontologist based in Mountain View, California, USA, and is the Chief Science Officer of SENS Research Foundation, a California-based 501(c)(3) biomedical research charity that performs and funds laboratory research dedicated to combating aging. In addition, he is Editor-in-Chief of Rejuvenation Research, the world’s highest-impact peer-reviewed journal focused on intervention in aging.

He received his BA in computer science and Ph.D. in biology from the University of Cambridge. His research interests encompass the characterisation of all the types of self-inflicted cellular and molecular damage that constitute mammalian aging and the design of interventions to repair and/or obviate that damage.

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 organisations. He is a highly sought-after speaker who gives 40-50 invited talks per year at scientific conferences, universities, companies in areas ranging from pharma to life insurance, and to the public.

Topics Discussed:

  • Brief overview of SENS
  • Why try to end aging?
  • How soon do you think we will end aging?
  • What role does rejuvenation biotech play in the COVID-19 pandemic? How would regenerative medicine help us better cope with the pandemic?
  • How are you implementing the techniques you research in your own life?
  • Which breakthrough are you most proud of?

Aubrey’s Links:
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/aubrey-de-grey-24260b/
Personal Website: https://www.sens.org/
Company Website: https://www.mfoundation.org/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/aubreydegrey


Hanh: [00:01:24]
Dr. Aubrey de Grey is a famed, biomedical gerontologist who devised the concept of SENS.  He’s a Chief Science Officer and a co-founder of SENS Research Foundation and it seeks to put this research into action through regenerative medicine.  So, you’re really working on some cutting-edge biotechnologies, and I’m excited to pick your brains today. Dr. Grey, thank you so much for joining me and Boomer Living today. Welcome.

Aubrey: [00:01:50]
Thank you for having me on the show.

Hanh: [00:01:52]
Can you start by giving us a brief overview of what SENS is, what it stands for and what does that mean?

Aubrey: [00:01:59]
Sure. So SENS is an acronym, SENS.FEFME It stands for Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence, which is a hell of a mouthful.  So, we never really bothered with that.  We simply mean that we are all about developing medicines that can deliver comprehensive rejuvenation. So, rejuvenation of course means reversing biological age.
It means taking someone who has reached the age of maybe 60 or 70 and putting them into the same state of health, but mentally and physically, that would be typical of a younger adult.  Now what that means is basically restoring the composition of the body to what it was to be younger, at the molecular level and the cellular level, because after all the body is a machine.  Of course, it’s an insanely complicated machine, but it’s still a machine.

So, it’s function is determined by its structure, right?  So, if we can repair essentially the damage that the body is building up throughout life, so to make that damage being lower, be low enough that the body doesn’t mind about it, then we restore health.  That’s what it’s all about. It really conceptually, just like what you would do in terms of preventative maintenance on a car that would allow the car to live for a hundred years, even though it was only designed to live 10 years.

Hanh: [00:03:24]
You mean slowing down the aging process and what SENS is trying to accomplish?

Aubrey: [00:03:29]
So, the difference between slowing aging down and reversing aging, actually rejuvenating people is absolutely key to understanding what we do.  And in fact, really, if you had to ask what is my personal, single main claim to fame scientifically, it is the fact that I was the first person about 20 years ago now, to realize the initially very counter-intuitive thing that reversing aging is easier than slowing it down.  People will think it’s going to be harder, right?  But actually, the thing is that if we want to slow aging down, then it’s like making a machine run more cleanly, you know which is you have to understand really in a lot of detail.  How the machine is working in order to be able to improve the way it works so that it lies down less damage than it normally would.

And we are light years away from that level of understanding of the way the human body works.  Whereas rejuvenation that is damage repair.  And that does not mean retracing, the chemical steps that created that damage in the first place.  It just means removing the damage in just the same way that, for example, going back to a car, if you have rust accumulated, and you want to make sure that the rust does not accumulate so much that the doors fall off, then you don’t De-rust, you don’t reverse the chemistry rusting, scrape off the rust, right? So, it’s the same deal. Damage repair does not involve the same pathway and therefore it’s actually a lot easier than retardation of the rate of creation of that.

Hanh: [00:05:08]
So why do you want to end aging and what motivates you to do this type of work?

Aubrey: [00:05:14]
Yeah. So, I get this question all the time. “What’s so bad about aging?” “Why would I want to end aging?” And of course, what I have to point out is that you would only ever ask that question if you are completely confused about what aging is, because let’s face it, what I mean by aging is simply the ill health that goes with having been born a long time ago, and nobody wants to be sick, however long ago they were born.  If you just remember what aging is, you don’t ask the question, right? Because all I’m doing is medical research to allow people to be healthy, who otherwise would not be.

Hanh: [00:05:46]
That’s a good point. So now I’ve heard you’re famous for saying that “The first person to live to a thousand has already been born”, and that you think that we’ll find a way to perfect anti-aging treatments within the next 20 years.  So how do you convince people that this future, like this is possible and that we’re close to it already?

Aubrey: [00:06:09]
First of all, I have to correct you slightly. The thing I say is a little bit from that, I definitely never say that “I’m certain that we will defeat aging completely within the next 20 years.” Like any pioneer in technology there is always the possibility that there could be obstacles that we haven’t yet encountered that will slow us down.

So, I’d say that there’s a 50% chance we will reach that point in the next 20 years, actually more like 15 years now, but I have totally accepted that there’s at least a 10% chance that we won’t get there for a hundred years.

Aubrey: [00:06:43]
So that’s important to remember. Other than that, though, you’re quite right in to what I said.  So, let me take both of your segments that you’re quoting me as separately, the first one about longevity, as you say, I have claims that the first person to reach the age of a thousand is already alive.

In fact, I think that person is probably already in middle age. So that’s a very strong thing, and it arises from my, the second statement, which is that I think we will comprehensively completely bring aging under control in the next 15 years or so.

Aubrey: [00:07:18]
In order to explain why, I need to divide our efforts chronologically into two parts.  First part being what’s going to happen, in my view, with 50% probability in the next 15 years, and the second part is what’s going to happen after that.  All right. So, in the first class, what’s going to happen is not the complete defeat of aging. The medical the complete defeat of aging would mean the development of medicines that can completely repair and eliminate 100% of the damage I mentioned earlier that the body does kill itself throughout life, as a consequence of its normal operation and that eventually starts to make us sick.  We will not be able to do that, but I think we will be able to get close enough to that, maybe repair two thirds of the total damage that is being created.

Aubrey: [00:08:06]
There’s many different types of course, that we will be able to buy time. Essentially what’s going to happen is we’ll be able to take these fairly good rejuvenation therapies 15 years from now and apply them to people who are, let’s say 70 at that point.  All right. And that will not take them back to being biologically 20, but it probably will take them back to being biologically, let’s say 40, which means that they won’t be biologically 70 again until let’s say a hundred, right? Because that will be how long it takes for the damage to catch up.

Aubrey: [00:08:38]
Now, at that point, the therapy will not help us anymore because they, the only reason we didn’t get back to biologically aged 20 in the first place was because the therapies are not perfect.

They only repair let’s say, two thirds of the damage. But the thing is when the person’s a hundred, they won’t get the same therapy.  They will get the benefit of all the work that people like me will have been doing in the meantime, during those 30 years to improve the therapy.  So, if we say that the damage that the first therapies work on 15 years from now in the easy damage and the rest is the difficult damage, then 30 years later the therapist will be able to repair some of the difficult damage as well.

Aubrey: 00:09:22
So, in fact, we will be able to, if you like re-rejuvenate the same people, that are a hundred now and biologically 70 for the second time.  So, they won’t be biologically 70 from the third time until let’s say 150. And so, I defined a word for this I call it a phrase, I call it “Longevity Escape Velocity.” Once we have a sufficiently comprehensive panel of rejuvenation therapies, damage repair therapies, to be able to buy us 20 or 30 years, like I just described, we’re done. It’s going to be easy for us to stay one step ahead of the problem in the minimum rate at which scientists need to improve the therapies, and that’s a rate that’s going to be very easy for us to maintain.

Aubrey: [00:10:04]
So that’s why I say that the people who get these first therapies that will give them just 20 or 30 years of extra life will actually have a life expectancy, a predicted average lifespan that would be equivalent to the situation if they got 100% perfect therapies at that point, even though they won’t because their therapy will not yet exist. So then in order to come to the longevity calculation, it’s easy. We just need to look at the risk of death, the rate of death, of people who are young adults today. We can say “Okay, supposing that in the Western world today, you reached the age of 26. Then what proportion of people who do that do not reach the age of 27? Less than one in a thousand. So, if that probability of death each year were constant and it’s not, depending on how long ago you were born, then of course you can do the calculation yourself.  It’s just like radioactive decay. You’re going to have a half-life, so to speak, of more than a thousand years.

Hanh: [00:11:10]
It’s a complex answer for many of us, myself included. It, it helps understand the concept and the rationale behind it. So, do you think there is a point in the future where we’ll be able to end aging altogether?

Aubrey: [00:11:24]
I don’t know, the human body is unbelievably complicated. And honestly, if we ever did get to a point where we were truly able to repair 100% of the damage, so that we didn’t need to carry on improving the therapy, then you know, that certainly is not going to happen for a very long time.  But my whole point with the longevity escape velocity concept is that we don’t need to worry about that.  Because what we care about is the outcome. We care about whether we’re going to get sick.  Since the body is already naturally set up to tolerate a certain amount of damage, it’s okay to have that, that, okay. We just need to maintain a level of progress so that the damage never gets above that threshold, that the body is already set up to tolerate.

Hanh: [00:12:14]
So, do you think all the recent, the new biotech, have a dark side to it, for instance, like I’m thinking about CRISPR, C R I S P R and all the talk of designer babies, for example.  So, what ethical considerations do you take into account when developing those cutting edge biotechnologies?

Aubrey: [00:12:34]
Of course, I’m not a bioethicist professionally. But what I can certainly say is that
there is nothing special about longevity medicine from an ethical point of view. Absolutely,
the same issues do apply that apply across the whole of medicine.  In other words, we certainly need to make careful decisions as to the cost benefit ratio of, for example, approving drugs after a certain amount of testing, or waiting until you’ve tested them for more.  And over approving certain therapies that might be considered to be not necessary, for example, distinguishing between what the therapy and what’s an enhancement, but this is not specific to longevity medicine.

Hanh: [00:13:18]
What role does rejuvenation biotech play in the COVID-19 pandemic?  And how would you, how would regenerate medicine help us better cope with the pandemic?

Aubrey: [00:13:29]
So, really those two parts of your question are the mirror image of each other. In other words, regenerative medicine right now, is, doesn’t really exist or rejuvenation biotechnology doesn’t really exist yet.  So of course, it is not playing very much of a role in the pandemic, but I believe that the pandemic will play an enormous role in the next few years in rejuvenation biotechnology. Because quite soon as the vaccines start to make an impact, the attention of, uh, key top level decision makers around the world is going to start to turn away from the immediate issue, getting the pandemic itself under control. And it’s going to turn towards the question of how to minimize the likelihood and the impact of the next pandemic and the one after that.

Aubrey: [00:14:18]
So, the question is how do we do that?  And of course, one thing we can absolutely say about the current pandemic is that it’s enormously more dangerous for older people than for younger adults.  Most impacts is the more dangerous, but the disparity is much bigger for COVID down for a typical impact.  So, what that means of course, is that if we had rejuvenation biotechnology so that people who had been born a long time ago, were actually not as biologically older then a lot of lives, a lot of lives would be saved.  And of course, a very large number of dollars would be saved, which also matters to politicians.  So that is the message that we are having to deliver right now, of course it can, be delivered in a narrow level and narrow way more easily than in the brain, by which, we couldn’t have say and rejuvenate the immune systems of the elderly. But one thing that I’m always having to communicate is that no system in the body is an island.

Aubrey: [00:15:15]
In other words, you can only meaningfully rejuvenate any one system by rejuvenating everything. And the thing is now we are seeing such promising early-stage results in rejuvenation, across the board, that this is no longer possible to make the case that, “Yeah, sounds good if we can do it, but it’s actually science fiction, so we won’t give you the money anyway.” You can’t say that anymore. We’re just doing too well already, but the progress from where we are to where we need to be, to really protect people is quite substantial. And of course, it will happen much more quickly if it’s better funded, but that’s the nature of medical research.

Hanh: [00:15:50]
How are you implementing the techniques that you’ve researched?

Aubrey: [00:15:54]
Yeah. Of course that’s a contradiction in terms because things that are the subject of research by definition, things that don’t yet exist and, therefore, cannot be implemented in one’s own life.  So, I will answer the question in two parts I guess. First question is “To what extent do I think I will, in the future, implement the things that we are developing in my own life?” I’m quite sure that I will engage in them greatly. I am definitely not looking forward to getting sick when I get old and I’m very much hoping that medicines of the future will stop that from happening.

In terms of where it is today with medicine that would not be called rejuvenation medicine because that doesn’t exist yet, but which are still available. And there wasn’t much less well than the therapies we want to develop. Again, actually, I don’t do anything, but that’s not because I think that it doesn’t make sense for people in general to do anything.  Instead, the reason is simply, I have an unusually well-built body.

Aubrey: [00:16:52]
I have the good fortune to be tested for my biological age in one way or another half a dozen times over the past 20 years or more, and I always come out insanely young, definitely more than a decade younger than I actually am.  Which means that the rational thing for me to do is to be conservative and to say, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. So yeah, I don’t do anything, but I’m not saying other people should not.

Hanh: [00:17:14]
We talk a lot about longevity, wellness, engagement, and purpose and contribution in all parts of life.  Obviously, it’s, it’s what humanity is, but there’s more emphasis is the later years, because that’s what enables you to, live to the fullest.  So however, you want to take care of yourself to live vibrantly and to the fullest, there’s so many components, right?  The wellness, uh, of life, whether it’s diet, exercise, and nutrition and spirit, reducing stress and getting proper sleep.  So, I think those are, key components and what you’re doing is exciting. I’m learning so much and I appreciate this conversation.

Hanh: [00:18:00]
So now, what breakthrough are you most proud of?

Aubrey: [00:18:04]
That’s becoming a tricky question because we keep making new breakthroughs.  I think I would say that from a personal level, it’s still the case that the original big Eureka moment that I mentioned earlier from 20 years ago is the biggest thing where I realized that damage repair is going to be so much easier than slowing down the creation of that. Of course, that was not just a one sentence realization.
It only made sense in the context of how it would be implemented.

So, it didn’t all happen like in the middle of the night, when I was jet lagged in Los Angeles, one day in July of 2000, but it involved putting together a lot of specific technologies for repairing particular types of damage. I’m coming up with the first true divide and conquer damage repair product.  But in terms of what my foundation has achieved, I definitely would have a more difficult time answering the question because we’ve achieved rather a lot.

Aubrey: [00:19:01]
Certainly, I would say there’s at least four cases where we have made really fundamental breakthroughs in developing technologies that everyone else had given up on, just thinking they were too hard. And, or not interesting enough, or something, and we showed they could be done, they were promising, and we kick-started the whole research area and other people are, doing the same thing now.  So that’s what really SENS Research Foundation was set up to do. I am very proud of the extent to which we have been able to do it.

Hanh: [00:19:32]
Congratulations. Now what do you see as a long-term future for SENS?

Aubrey: [00:19:38]
The usual answer that I get when people say, what is the long-term future of SENS Research Foundation?  Is that I hope it doesn’t have one. I hope that in the relatively foreseeable future, maybe five years from now, we can just declare victory.  Now what I mean by that is not that we will have these therapies, because as I said, I don’t think that we’re going to have them for maybe 15 years.

Furthermore, I, I know that we’re going to have to improve them after that in order to maintain “Longevity Escape Velocity”, but already what we are saying is that SENS Research Foundation is successfully handing off project after project to other groups.  In particular, over the past three or four years, it’s become possible for us to spin out projects as startup companies.  Of course, the big requirement in order to do that is that there should be investors out there who are courageous enough to join the dots and see their way to eventual revenue.

Aubrey: [00:20:39]
In order to get to that point, we had to make the early-stage proof of concept progress purely on the basis of philanthropy or public charity. So yeah, it couldn’t be done until maybe five years ago. But now it’s our business model. We’ve done it half a dozen times already and I hope that there will come a point where the philanthropic sector, so to speak of this movement is no longer needed and the private sector can do everything.  We’re not there yet, we’re a few years away from it, so far, but that is my goal.

Hanh: [00:21:10]
All right. So, what do you think is your biggest strength that enables you to have a unique, impactful effect on the work that you do?  Maybe something that’s not well known about You?

Aubrey: [00:21:20]
I don’t think I’m truly, unique or exceptional in any single way. I do think that I’m pretty good in several ways and I’ve been able to put those things together. I think, I’m a good scientist and I’ve also got a certain degree of charisma maybe, and I’ve definitely got determination and I’ve got a thick skin, which was definitely necessary early on when I was, when a lot of people in my field didn’t understand anything I was saying, and I had to endure quite a lot of poorly reasons, criticism.

Um, it’s really the combination of all those things. I feel I use all of them in combination without, without all of them I would not have been able to achieve what I have.

Hanh: [00:22:00]
Absolutely. Those are great virtues and qualities that you have to endure and be very dedicated in this whole journey. Has working closely with, repairing illnesses that comes with aging and all the work that you do has changed you in any way? Let’s say you’ve been doing this 20 plus years you said, has it changed you in this journey of 20 years?

Aubrey: [00:22:23]
I would say I’ve become a little more able to understand how difficult it is for people to realign their conception of aging.  To understand that aging is actually a medical problem, rather than some kind of inevitable natural, universal thing, that is in sometimes off limits to medicine, which is where people normally start.  At the beginning, I was just, it just struck me that people were just hypnotized. I actually invented the phrase, “The Pro Aging Trance” to explain that, to describe it.  I’ve become more charitable over the years and I’ve understood that we’ve had to put up with aging since the beginning of civilization, because we knew that we had no idea how to do anything about it.  And it made sense to be irrational, to invent irrational rationalizations of it.  It’s only since I’ve come along and we actually have a plan to do something about it properly, but that attitude has become irrational and it has become, a lot of, a big part of the problem by virtue of slowing down, public spending on the fly.

Hanh: [00:23:22,406]
Do you find it rewarding and why in serving the aging population and the illnesses that comes with aging, what is your thoughts on that?

Aubrey: [00:23:31]
I find it immensely rewarding.  I always, over, for the past 20 years really, I have considered myself one of the luckiest people on earth, it just, it’s an insanely indescribable privilege to be able to make this much of a difference.  Of course, I mentioned all the qualities that I brought to the thing, of course, enormous amount of the reason why I’m, what I am today is luck.  Was just in the right place at the right time to, you know, I feel enormously privileged to be able to make such a difference.

Hanh: [00:24:00]
The work that you’re doing it’s innovative, like you said, you have to withstand a lot of opposition, so I admire your dedication and determination.  Now, do you have any other thoughts that you would like to share?

Aubrey: [00:24:12]
I think you asked a very good spectrum of questions and Thank you. I think I’ve been able to communicate that things are going really well, but still, we have some way to go. One thing I should probably emphasize when in elaboration of what I said about projects, moving from the philanthropic sector to the public sector, the private sector, is that the things that are still being funded philanthropically, are still very underfunded.

The reason we have adopted this business model of spinning projects out as fast as we can, as soon as we get investors that are interested is very simple that investors like bigger checks than donors do on average, which means that the project goes faster on account of having better results. And that means, but that means of course, that’s, you know, the projects that are not yet at that stage are still going at a rate, that is limited, severely limited by shortage of financial support.

Aubrey: [00:25:08]
So, I would just like to urge anyone who wants to know more about this to have a look at our website SENS.org and learn more about it.  Ask questions, anyone, there’s a nice, friendly “Donate Button” on the page, but of course, for like donations there are other ways.  And the reason I do all these interviews and lectures around the world all the time is to get the word out and to get this stuff to happen faster and save more lives.

Hanh: [00:25:32]
Absolutely. I’ll make sure to include your profile, your website, the, all of your links on the show notes, so that if listeners and investors would like to reach out to you, it’ll be readily available.

Thank you so much.

Aubrey: [00:25:46]
Fantastic. Thank you again for having me on the show.

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