I meet Aubrey de Grey after his lecture at the CosmoCaixa Barcelona Museum. He’s had an intense day: several press, radio and television interviews in the morning, followed by a two hours lecture in front of a demanding public. Fatigue does not keep him from enjoying the Mussol specialty snails and a good wine from Priorat, or from answering a series of questions of which, he says, none is new to him (it is almost true, as you might see in the links).
He is used to it, as Aubrey de Grey is a controversial character and, due to his career goal, attracts media attention. With a degree in computer science, specialist in bioinformatics and PhD in biology with a thesis on mitochondrial aging, he left his job at the University of Cambridge (UK) to accept the job of president and principal scientific delegate of the Methuselah Foundation. He understands that his job is to unify the efforts of scientists working separately and launch the field of biomedical gerontology, a field of research devoted to finding a cure to a disease: aging. Because de Grey is quite clear: aging is not inscribed in our genes, is the result of the accumulation of damage not repaired and that just ends up being fatal. Evolutionary biology says he is right: our genes allow us to live long enough to reproduce successfully, and after that … we matter little at the “eyes” of the selfish gene. If we repaired these damages in time … could we not live a thousand years?.
He answers my shabby questions without hesitation, in a perfect British that you can hear here (obviously, my English is not like his) and that I transcribe (literally) below.
CienciaxLibre: How do your define yourself?
Aubrey de Grey: I normally call myself a biomedical gerontologist. So that sounds as a complicated name, but it is quite important because there are normally considered to be a few different types of gerontologist.
First of all, there are people who study the sociology of ageing. They call themselves social gerontologists. Then there are people who study how to use existing therapies to combat ageing, but of course they know that we cannot really combat ageing very much yet. They are sometimes called clinical gerontologist or sometimes geriatricians. And then there are people who study the biology of ageing. And you would think that I would call myself what they call themselves, which is biogerontologist. But I don’t, because most biogerontologists don’t study ageing in order to figure out how to fix it: they study it as a phenomenon to be understood, rather in the same way that seismologist study earthquakes. You know… they understand that earthquakes are sometimes quite bad for you, but they don’t aspire to actually stopping them from happening. And most biogerontolists are the same, so that’s why I call myself a biomedical gerontologist. I am not trying to use therapies that already exist, but I’m trying to develop new therapies that will actually do something about ageing.
CxL: What is ageing?
AdG: Ageing is the accumulation of damage in the body. Damage is the best word that I have found for the thing that accumulates. So it is not a very good word, because I have to define it very carefully in order to make people understand what I mean.
Damage is the types of molecular and cellular side effect of the normal operation of the body, that eventually, when they accumulate to a large abandon, start to cause age related ill health and to make the body work less well. So ageing is simply the accumulation of these side effects that are eventually bad for us.
CxL: What do you propose to combat ageing?
AdG: I have a very simple proposal for combating ageing, which is to repair its damage. It is very hard to prevent the harm from being created in the first place, because the processes that created it are the same processes that keep us alive and we just don’t understand those processes nearly well enough to be able to do anything about them. It is also very difficult to stop the damage from causing ill health, from preventing the body from working well, because ultimately the damage is just there, it gets in the way. So the best way is repairing maintenance: to get rid of the damage and keep it at a low enough level where the body can handle it.
CxL: What’s the science supporting your proposal for combating ageing?
AdG: Well, the theoretical proposal, that if we could get rid of the damage then we would not have ageing, we would not suffer the ill health of ageing… everyone supports that, because really it is simply a consequence of the definition of ageing. Where we need more evidence, is the question of whether particular therapies that might be possible to develop quite soon, in the next few decades for example would be enough to get of the damage of ageing. And I have tried to develop a scheme for doing that, by dividing the problem into seven major parts, seven major types of things that go wrong during life, and cause the damage and to identify particular ways to fix them. But it could be that some of the fixings that I describe don’t work and it could be that there are things that are not in my list of seven categories. I think we have good evidence against either of those possibilities, but, well, we just have to try.
CxL: How much time do you think it would take for these therapies to be ready?
AdG: Some of them are very closed already. Probably the one that is further advanced is the therapy for getting rid of amyloid in the brain, that accumulates during Alzheimer disease and that most people think that actually contributes to the progression of Alzheimer disease. And there, the main fix is to get it from this place where it normally lives, in the spaces between cells, inside some of the cells in the brain, where it would get destroyed. That process works pretty well already, and is in phase III clinical trial.
But some of the processes are a lot further away. We are just starting to develop the technology, and so I think they there are the ones that will take 25 to 30 years to get to really come to true issuing.
CxL: Would combating ageing cause more problems than it would solve?
AdG: No, the problems it would solve are the deaths of a hundred thousand people everyday, most of them dying really horribly after a long period of suffering, and decline and decrepitude and dependence and general misery. It’s pretty hard to beat that. There are certainly some potential problems that would be caused if we didn’t have ageing any more. But those are the sort of problems that I would like to have if the choice is those problems or getting Alzheimer disease or getting cancer or whatever.
CxL: What do your think that would be in the mind of a human being living 1000 years?
AdG: We really can’t know very much at this point about the mind of a human being even of 200 years old, let alone a thousand, but there’s only one way to find out. And one thing that we must remember is that we won’t create 1000 years old just like that: people will continue to get older one year at a time, so we would find out progressively what is like being progressively older.
CxL: Would we take more care of the planet if we lived longer?
AdG: I’m sure that we will take care of the planet we live in when we start to live a long time, but not for the reason you are expecting. A lot of people say “Well, we will take better care for the planet because we will know that we are going to suffer the consequences if we don’t”. I don’t really agree with that logic, I think that if that were true then young people would care about the planet already, and they don’t really seem to do so, or at least not very much. In any case, people care about what their children are going to experience, anyway, so I don’t really like that logic.
But the reason I think we will take care of the planet better when we have defeated ageing is that we will know that we can. Thinking about ageing makes us feel that we are not in control of nature. Even though we’ve come so far in developing technologies, the things that matter most, the things that keep us alive are beyond us. Once we solve this oldest and biggest problem to humanity, we will fell empowered to really feel able to solve other big problems that we have, like climate change or… you know, other big problems.
CxL: Don’t you think that these therapies, if we managed to develop them, could cause an insurmountable breach between rich and poor? Because medicine already makes a difference.
AdG: I have two answers to that question. First an answer that applies within a wealthy country, like Spain for example, and secondly an answer that applies to the whole world taken together. Within a wealthy country there are a lot of things that cost a lot and are not accessible to many people. People might be scared that this would happen for a therapy against ageing. But actually there’s no chance at all that this happens. It would be in the economic interest of any wealthy country to give all of its citizens these therapies for free, even if they cannot afford to pay anything for them. Because being old, and suffering for not having the therapy is incredibly expensive for society. Just supplying the medical care to keep people alive for an extra couple of years is most of the medical budgets of most wealthy countries and also these people are not continuing to contribute wealth to society. Actually people have done some calculations on this, and the Methusalen Foundation is funding a study right now to do more calculations, more closely reflecting the thoughts of combating ageing that I expect to happen. In any case, it would be enormously valuable economically to make sure that this is available to everybody, so there’s no chance of any dividers.
The other question, about what happens across the whole world… It will simply be in the self interest of wealthy countries to give money to poor countries to do this, because otherwise the poor countries would be angry and they will send terrorist and that would be bad.
CxL: One more and we are done. If you had a dream that you could make true… what would it be?
AdG: At the moment my dream is to get enough people committed to fighting ageing. I am not longer very important and other people who can do what I do better than me and are able to take over. I think I’ve done enough, and I deserve a holiday… and I want it right now!
Aubrey de Grey links: