SPP: First we just want to get an idea of exactly what it is that you’re doing and your research with the SENS and everything, and just kind of give us an overview.
Aubrey De Grey: Yeah that’s pretty easy for me. So SENS Foundation is a charity, it’s registered in the USA in California, and we’re focused on combating aging, but in particular we are focused on a particular price to combating aging that arises from the work that I’ve been doing over the past decade, which is to apply regenerative medicines the problem.
So when most people think about combating aging they think either about the diseases of our day. So they think about treating the diseases, their disabilities and the other half of old age in the same way that we create infectious diseases, or whatever. Alternatively, they think about aging as a lifelong process that eventually leads to those diseases, but they think about somehow slowing it down.
Now both of those approaches make some degree of sense but neither of them is really good enough. First of all, if we look at the approach of curing the diseases of old age we can see that we have actually not really got very far, and actually if you look at the details of what we know about these diseases that’s not surprising. We’re not in any real prospect of getting to a point of treating the disease of old age and to do anything like the same degree of effectiveness that we have for typical infectious diseases like tuberculosis or whatever. So that’s one approach but it’s not really working.
Now the approach of slowing aging down makes sense in principle but it’s also not going very well. First of all, it’s incredibly difficult to do because it involves manipulating or rearranging, redesigning metabolism, which we just don’t have the knowledge for yet by a long, long way. But also even worse than that if we did have that knowledge the fact is that all it would do would be to slow things down. What I mean is if you’re already in middle age or older than those sorts of treatments would simply keep you that way, keep you in a state of diminished health relative to how we are as young adults, rather than fixing you up the way that the medicine is supposed to do.
So the approach at SENS Foundation is pioneering and pursuing is to actually repair the damage of old age, not to start with the diseases of old age when people are already suffering, but to attack the lifelong accumulating damage that causes the disease to emerge at all. And we feel this is an area that’s been neglected. There are some aspects of it that are being explored well but there are lots of them that people have just ignored. Largely because they haven’t really seen how to go about the question.
So really the breakthrough that I made a decade ago that has led to the SENS Foundation and to all the work we do is to understand that actually of the various types of damage that accumulate through our lives are, at least potentially, amenable to repair by regenerative medicine.
SPP: Is this tied to the human genome or is this because of stem cell research? What kind of technologies are you guys trying to incorporate to do this research?
Aubrey De Grey: Well most of the major areas of current biomedical technology are potentially relevant to this. Certainly stem cell research and stem cell therapy is extremely relevant, because one of the seven types of damage that accumulate throughout life is the loss of cells. The death of cells not compensated by the division of other cells. And stem cell therapy is basically all about fixing that problem.
Now most stem cell therapy is fixed on fixing that problem in the context of acute disease happening at any age, but it’s absolutely just as applicable to aging. In fact there are certain major areas of aging which are particularly characterized by this problem. Parkinson’s Disease is a great example of it, because Parkinson’s Disease is caused by the death of a particular type of neuron in a particular part of the brain called the Substantia Niagara. And there are already clinic trials going on putting stem cells into that area of the brain to replace the cells that are missing and thereby solve the problem.
Aubrey De Grey: Now when you mention the genome a lot of people think about the genome as the source of information to lead to personalized medicine. That’s very true, but actually the medicine that we’re talking about doesn’t have all that big a personalized component. Essentially what we’re going to be doing is developing things that’s going to be applied to everybody and we know they’re going to work, whatever the genome of the person has.
So I don’t want to belittle personalized medicine and genomic because it’s certainly very important to be able to understand what any particular person’s vulnerabilities are so as to understand where to be more aggressive and less aggressive in the treatment.
SPP: You mentioned the seven signs of aging, and I know it goes a little in depth, but could you kind of explain your idea behind that and where that came from?
Aubrey De Grey: Sure. Ultimately the reason why the diseases of old age are diseases of old age is because they are the latest stages or aspects of the latest stages of a process that goes on through our lives. If that were not true then those same diseases would hit people early in life as well, and they don’t. So the question then is, what is that process that happens throughout life? What is the change that happens to people that gradually diminishes their remaining life expectancy?
And the answer turns out to be relatively well understood at this point. If we look at what we know about how the body changes through our life we can actually find two particular things that change, and that spectrum, that list of things that change hasn’t really changed that much in recent years. So what I was able to do about a decade ago was to classify these things but to identify the possibility that we could actually categorize these various types of damages into seven major classes, such that we could actually identify ways to fix this type of damage.
So I mentioned one class already, namely the lot of cells where cells die and they’re not automatically replaced by [10:52] other cells. That’s one of the seven categories.
Another one is the overabundance of cells where cells just get to be too numerous because they’re not dying when they are supposed to. There are certain types of cell which are supposed to be turned over to die and be replaced by other cells, and sometimes those cells get into a state where they don’t die when they ought to. This is important in a few aspects of aging, one of them being the decline of the immune system.
Now the third type of damage, which is also characterized by the overabundance of cells. In this case it’s not the failure of cells to die it’s the over proliferation of cells, the undo tendency of cells to divide when they shouldn’t be dividing, and that of course is what cancer is. So that’s definitely an aspect of aging that we need to fix.
Number 4 in the list of type of damage is mutations in a particular part of the cell called the Mitochondrion. So the mitochondrion is a special part of the cell that does the chemistry of breathing. It does the chemical combination of oxygen with nutrients that we take in our diet to extract energy from those nutrients. The mitochondrion is very special because it has its own DNA that’s separate from the DNA in our nuclear. The mitochondrion DNA accumulates mutations much, much more quickly than the nuclear DNA. There are lots of reasons why we believe that those mutilations matter during aging, so we’d like to fix that problem.
The fifth type of damage, Number 5 is the accumulating new garbage, Molecular Garbage. So what I mean here is molecular byproducts are no more essential intrinsic metabolic processes, byproducts fat for whatever reason, the cell does not know how to destroy nor to excrete. So those byproducts simple accumulate in the cell and they accumulate really slowly. So they don’t get in the way for a long, long time, but eventually they do because they’re just get too abundant. So we need to get rid of that stuff.
Number 6 is the accumulation of garbage again but in this case not inside the cell but rather outside the cell in the spaces between cells. This turns out to be important in a few areas of aging, such as Alzheimer’s Disease and just as junk inside the cell we need to get rid of it.
The final one Number 7 is again outside the cell but in this case not the accumulation of garbage it’s actually the chemical modification of stuff that we want. So in the spaces between cells there are proteins that are laid down in a network called the Extra Cellular Matrix. And that network is how we end up having the particular shape that particular [13:55] do. Holding things together and making them respond to physical and biophysical stimuli appropriately. In particular there are certain areas of the extra cellular matrix that need to be very elastic in order to work.
The ulcery wall is a big example. That elasticity is diminished over time. So we need to fix that. We need to restore the elasticity of the extra cellular matrix.
Aubrey De Grey: So those are the seven things.
SPP: Is it still in a theoretical stage or are you kind of solving those issues, those seven issues one by one at this point? Aubrey De Grey: Oh well I mean I don’t think any of it can really be called theory.
Aubrey De Grey: That’s really the wrong word to use.
Aubrey De Grey: You don’t use that word. That’s the word they use in basic science when we’re trying to discover things, we’re trying to test hypothesis. This is not we’re talking about here it’s technology and that’s very different. Now medicine is a bunch of technology not a bunch of science. What we’re trying to do is use existing knowledge, and yes to some extent extend existing knowledge, but fundamentally we’re trying to use existing knowledge for the benefit of mankind. The best way to answer your question is to say, well actually what we’re doing is we’re taking these various concepts forward using the knowledge that has been developed by basic science in order to develop the technologies that we’ll be able to translate those basic science areas of expertise into medicine.
Aubrey De Grey: So to answer that question it’s going very nicely. The areas that are going best are not the ones that SENS Foundation is following. That’s on purpose because we are a small foundation, we’re interested in making as much difference as we can with the small amount of resources that we have. So we are very much prioritizing the areas that have not been prioritized by other people and that are, if you like, in danger of lagging behind. We want them to catch up. The areas that are doing best of the areas that are being funded well by other people.
So I mentioned the accumulation of extra cellular garbage, molecular junk outside the cells. Now that’s an area which is important in a number of different aspects of aging but Alzheimer’s Disease is probably the most conspicuous. A particular approach to dealing with that problem which involves the immune system was seven Australian mice about 11 years ago, and in that short time it’s moved from the laboratory into the clinic, all the way up to phase 3 clinical trials the last stage before clinical approval. So that’s done very nicely.
Now stem cell therapy is another example. There are a lot of different areas of aging in which cells die and they’re not automatically in place, and a number of those areas are being investigated very aggressively by people who work with stem cells for the purpose of replacing their cells. And as you may have heard there are a number of clinical trials already going on, especially with adult stem cells. Actually a couple of trials they’re now beginning with embryonic stem cells to actually address the problem of cell loss.
In respect to aging I mentioned Parkinson’s Disease is a particularly important example and Parkinson’s Disease turns out to be one of the areas in which stem cells are potentially valuable. There are again clinical trials going on already trying to treat Parkinson’s Disease by replacing the cells that are dying and not being automatically replaced.
SPP: I think I remember earlier in the conversation you were talking about metabolism, which instantly made me think nutrition and what we eat, what goes into our diets. Is there anything that you guys have done in terms of research that can be immediately applied to people’s diets nowadays, which will help them lead a longer healthier life?
Aubrey De Grey: So I wish I could say, but unfortunately what we do is not that.
Aubrey De Grey: There are some things you can do that will perhaps help you to avoid any particular genetic or environmental shortcomings that you may have, but at the moment the overwhelming evidence is that if you are already relatively normal and likely to live to the age of 80 without too much trouble, then there’s pretty much nothing we can currently do for you I’m afraid.
SPP: Oh wow!
Aubrey De Grey: Therefore what we do is simply hasten the development of new therapy that don’t yet exist that will be able to do something for you.
SPP: How far out do you think we are from seeing real implementation of what you’re learning at the SENS Foundation?
Aubrey De Grey: Right. Well that depends very much on everybody else, because a lot of the work that needs to be done is not being done nearly as fast as it could be because there’s not enough money to the project. At the moment there’s simply not enough appreciation of the potential of regenerative medicine to combat aging. We need to fix that. I’m hoping that we’re only 20 or 30 years away from getting this really to be working properly and less than 10 years away from what we might call Proven Concept in the laboratory. In other words, getting mice to live a lot longer, in a healthy state of course, than the naturally would.
To my mind that’s what matters the most we need that proven concept. Once we got that game over. Everyone’s going to know that it’s only a matter of time before we can do it with humans and money will be no object. What really matters the real focus needs to be on this early state, these next few years to actually get the basic technologies working in the laboratory in mice so that we can demonstrate that regenerative medicine can work against aging.
SPP: How long do you imagine we should be able to live given these technologies?
Aubrey De Grey: There’s absolutely no reason to suppose any particular limit on how long people can live in the context of really comprehensive regenerative medicine against aging. The way to look at that question if you look at how we currently get simple manmade machines to live, because after all the body is still a machine. It’s a very complicated one but it’s still a machine right.
Aubrey De Grey: If we look at cars or airplanes there are cars that date from not long after cars were invented that are still working just as well as they were when they were built. The reason for that is because they’ve been well looked after. So that service that simple manmade machines can work as long as we want, indefinitely I guess as long as we maintain them comprehensively enough. And I think the change is definitely going to be good for the human body. But the real thing I want to point out is that we should not be thinking about the longevity aspect, all that we should be thinking about is the how aspect. The fact that nobody wants to get Alzheimer’s Disease, nobody wants to get cancer in our lives, and so.
That’s what these therapies are designed to bring about; the avoidance of the disease however long you live. If we can do that then obviously we’ve done a good thing. And there will be this side benefit that people will supposedly live a lot longer as well, but that’s a side effect.
SPP: What do you suspect the, and maybe you’re not concerned with it as much, but kind of the economics behind if you were to have people living from…
Aubrey De Grey: Well I’m certainly concerned about that. I mean as far as I’m concerned my job consists, not only of doing and orchestrating the science, but also orchestrating the attitude of the science, the public opinion of the science.
SPP: Oh true.
Aubrey De Grey: So I definitely regard it as my job. Economically the situation is very, very clear. The fact is at the moment we have an enormous problem, not just in terms of suffering but also in terms of economics. The sickness of the elderly in capacity of the elderly is incredibly expensive. I mean just unbelievably expensive. The enormous majority of our healthcare budget in the US or in Canada or anywhere goes on including the elderly.
Now if we can develop preventative medicine that stops people from getting sick when they get old we will be saving all that money. I mean obviously we’ll be spending some of that money on the medicine that prevents you from getting old but there is no way that would outweigh the money we save. Plus also of course we’ve got to think about the amount of money that we are spending today in terms of the reduced productivity of the loved ones of the elderly. People who are spending their time looking after their parents, or whatever, when they could be contributing wealth to society.
Aubrey De Grey: Some of the other aspects would be costs of this. So basically we are in a situation where when these therapies become foreseeable it will become economically suicidal for any country not to make them available to everybody free upon delivery. Irrespective of the ability to pay and irrespective of how tax averse the country is.
SPP: Right. What about in terms of population control?
Aubrey De Grey: Right. So this comes up a lot. People get terribly worried about the idea that we might end up with too many people because people aren’t dying when they ought to. It’s nonsense.
Aubrey De Grey: And first of all I want to say this is as ridiculous idea from a purely mathematical perspective, because let’s face it people only get older one year per year and already we have more than twice as many people being born every day as are dying every day. So we’ve gotten very frugal in relation to the problem of our population namely lowering the birthrates, but more to the point perhaps more cogently we can say “Well okay hang on.” As I said earlier we’re talking about health. Hands up anyone who wants Alzheimer’s Disease, hands up anyone who would like to die in order to benefit the overpopulation problem of the future.
The fact is that’s not how things work. We actually don’t fancy the idea of getting sick and we will make the choices that are necessary, in the context of the extent knowledge of course, to allow people to benefit from therapy to keep them healthy because ultimately health matters more to people than anything else.
SPP: When I asked that question I was wondering how can he answer this in a way that I’m going to believe him, but you pretty much did. I don’t want to get sick and I would sacrifice having four kids versus one or two in order to everyone lead a healthier life.
SPP: Personally I’ve been affected by someone in the family that’s had both cancer and Alzheimer and going through that and seeing what happens to everybody in the family, not just the person suffering from it, having a world where we don’t have to worry about those two diseases would be absolutely amazing.
Aubrey De Grey: Yes it would.
SPP: I guess lastly I just wanted to ask, is there anything that stands out in your research, in your mind, in the works the books that you write, that you wanted to pass along to everyone?
Aubrey De Grey: I think we’ve pretty much done it. The main thing I wanted to get across is to get people out of the fixation that they often have in relation to my work, but it’s all about immortality, it’s all about longevity. The fact is I really need to get across the fact that it’s all about health and that the longevity aspect is, yeah it’s great but it’s a side benefit. If we focus on that then we can understand. We can keep a sense of proportion about all the potential social or philosophical or theological or economic issues that may arise as a result of changing in population structure or whatever. The fact is we need to keep those things in the context and keep us in proportionate about them in relation to the problem that we’re fixing to solve, namely the problem of people getting sick when they get old, which is quite a big problem. That’s the fundamental thing I want to get across to your audience.
SPP: After reading your book and talking with you I can promise you that you will have a donation from our podcast. We don’t have much money but I totally support it. So I always want to urge our listeners to do so, if you could please tell them about your book and your foundation and how to help out, we’d like to pass that information along.
Aubrey De Grey: Well thank you very much for that.
SPP: No problem.
Aubrey De Grey: I wrote a book a few years ago it’s called “Ending Aging”. You can get it on Amazon and it’s not very expensive. Get the paperback edition because it has an additional chapter in it that covers the work that we’ve done in the 12 months between the two editions. In terms of supporting our foundation we have Web sites www.SENS.org and you can certainly give us money there. We will be very grateful for it.
That money is being used to support the absolutely time critical research. The research is not being done elsewhere that we believe is absolutely essential to developing the panel of interventions that will eventually be able to reverse aging to actually apply regenerative medicine to the problem of aging.
SPP: All right. Aubrey, thank you so much for your time, we really appreciate it. Best of luck with this in the future. I know every one’s future is depending on it.
Aubrey De Grey: Thank you very much. SPP: All right thanks.
Aubrey De Grey: Goodnight.
SPP: Have a good night.