Dr. Aubrey de Grey is co-founder and chief science officer of the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Sciences Foundation, a group of brainiacs and Oasis fans who want us all to live forever. De Grey believes that the human body is like an extremely complex classic car, and like the classic cars of, say, a Jay Leno, our bodies can run like they did when they were young for an indefinite amount of time provided the proper maintenance, what de Grey refers to as Human Regenerative Engineering. In addition to living for hundreds or thousands of years, Aubrey believes we will also stay as smart as 30somethings and as sexy as 20somethings. Basically Logan's Run minus Carousel.
As easy as it is to write off the Aub as yet another post-Kurzweilian weirdbeard, we're willing to give his believings the benefit of the doubt on the bases on de Grey's Ph.D. in biology from Cambridge, and the fact that his book Ending Aging makes a whole lot of sense when you really think about it. And also because we are staunch proponents of "Fuck Oldness."
Vice: Hi Aubrey, how long have you been working on this permanent longevity project?
Aubrey de Grey: About 14 years.I got into biology by a very non-traditional route. I was originally a computer scientist and I learned biology informally from my wife. After I began to research the field of the biology of aging myself, I started to do things more traditionally. I was awarded my PhD in 2000 and I have published a few dozen peer-reviewed academic papers and so forth.
What is Human Regenerative Engineering?
It's simply comprehensive preventative maintenance applied to the human body. In the same way we can keep vintage cars and airplanes, or whatever, in fully functioning condition for as long as we like by maintaining them comprehensively enough, similarly, we can, in principle, do the same for the really complicated machine that we call the human body.
What’s involved in this body maintenance?
Typically, today, the therapies involve things like injecting stem cells into the spinal cord or the heart in the vicinity of a trauma, to stimulate rebuilding of the damaged tissue, or else wholesale surgical replacement of an organ such as the heart or bladder with one created in the laboratory by tissue engineering. But as we progress, it will broaden to include "molecular-level" regeneration, such as injecting enzymes (or the genes encoding them, depending on the target tissue) that can break down unwanted molecular byproducts of metabolism that are accumulating in cells as "garbage" and that eventually impair cell function. In the case of injecting genes, we're talking about the standard techniques being developed for somatic gene therapy for inherited diseases: packaging the new DNA in a virus that worms its way into cells and integrates into the chromosome. (In many cases it will be doable much more safely, however, by performing this manipulation on stem cells outside the body, which can be verified for the correct genetic alteration before being injected.) The type of damage we repair need not be restricted to sudden, trauma-derived damage either--the gradually progressive damage that comprises aging is just as legitimate a target for regenerative medicine.
Neat. And what's "negligible senescence"?
Caleb Findh coined the term “negligible senescence” in 1990, and it means a rate of aging (as measured by the observed probability distribution of age at death in a population) that is statistically indistinguishable from zero. Some animals do indeed live hundreds of years--bowhead whales at least 200, and some molluscs at least 400.
You do a lot of work with mice. How come?
Mice have been used in biology research for a century, so we have a huge arsenal of clever technical tricks to manipulate their genes and physiology that don't work so well in other animals. That's a big reason why they continue to be the mammal of choice for so many biologists. When we get SENS working well in mice, there will still be a lot of work to do to get it working in humans, but the credibility barrier will evaporate, so funding and progress will be massively better.
Realistically, how long do you think it will be before some of this work comes to fruition in humans?
It's moving fast, but not nearly as fast as it could with a bit more funding. I think we're looking at a 50/50 chance of getting to the tipping point of this technology for humans within about 25 years so long as funding becomes adequate soon, but that could be delayed by at least a decade if funding remains weak.
Ideally, how long do you think you'll be able to live for?
I don't have a number for that, and I think it's unproductive to think about longevity that way. The right way to think about it is in terms of health. So first, I'm healthy now and I don't want to die any time soon. Second, I don't want to become decrepit or diseased however long I live. Third, I think it's very likely that I won't want to die any time soon at any point in the future either, so long as I stay healthy. Add all those things together, and it makes sense to forward-plan--to invest time now in increasing one's chances of avoiding decrepitude as one gets "chronologically" older.
And all this will happen without our brains or muscular systems rotting into moldy sponge?
Yes, that's exactly right. The longevity is best understood as a side-benefit: the purpose of my work is all about treating aging as a disease and keeping it comprehensively at bay. We'll never live much longer if we don't figure out how to stay healthy longer, and any suggestion to the contrary is just ignorance or scare tactics. But conversely, once we do succeed in defeating aging, the result will be an indefinite maintenance of the very low probability of death per year that young adults enjoy--in other words, a greatly increased life expectancy.