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There is a disease which causes the human body and mind to gradually deteriorate, causing its sufferers to experience discomfort, memory loss, failed health, disfigurement, and severe physical and mental handicaps. It is always fatal, and there is no known cure. The scientific term for this disease is Senescence, though it is more commonly known as aging or growing old. Every single person is born with this condition, and it kills over a million people a year in the U.S. alone.

Thinking of old age as a curable disease seems strange to some people, but great leaps in medical progress over the past few decades are indicating a future where no one will need to suffer the deteriorating physical condition and the dulling of the mind which occur during aging. Scientists may be able to repair this flaw in evolution’s design, and perhaps perpetual youth will become a reality soon enough that you and I might live to enjoy it.

We here at DamnInteresting.com recently had an opportunity to converse with two of the men leading the effort towards the elimination of aging: Mr. Kevin Perrott and Dr. Aubrey de Grey. But we tried not to take up too much of their time, because they have a lot of work to do, and none of us are getting any younger.

Both men are advocates of the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) initiative, which is a to-do list that outlines the obstacles we’ll need to overcome in order to cure aging. SENS is not in the realm of age-defying cosmetics, but rather it is an effort towards the permanent preservation of youthful health in all of humanity.

SENS is subject to a lot of criticism, sometimes regarding the credibility of its founders or the feasibility of the technology… but perhaps the most active area of discussion is in regards to the philosophical implications of a world where eternal youth is a reality. For example, many have expressed concerns that if SENS technology comes to fruition, only the super-rich will have access to this medicine. Dr. de Grey addresses such concerns on his SENS website:

When a cure for aging is developed, people will want it really quite badly — more than they want cures for other things that can only extend their lives by a few years. The problem with democracy is that it only works well for issues that a lot of people really really care about, enough to determine whom they vote for. Contemporary medicine just doesn’t quite achieve that — the economy always beats it. But that won’t be true of a cure for aging. As soon as a real cure becomes widely anticipated — let alone actually developed — it will become impossible to get elected other than on a platform incorporating a Manhattan project to expedite a cure, both in terms of its development and in terms of its dissemination.

He also responds to worries that the world will encounter massive over-population:

Put yourself in the position of someone powerful — the prime minister of France, for example — in, say, 1870 or so, when Pasteur was going around saying that hygiene could almost entirely prevent infant deaths from infections and death in childbirth. In your position, you have some influence over how quickly this knowledge gets out — and, thus, how quickly lives start being saved. But you realise that the sooner people start adhering to these principles and washing their hands and so on, the sooner the population will start exploding on account of all those children not dying. What would you have done? — got the information out as soon as possible, or held it back as best you could in order to delay the population crisis?

He doesn’t always offer a solution to these issues, but he makes a very good point: If humanity finds a cure for senescence, it will cause a bumpy transition… it will turn society upside-down and create a host of new problems which the people of the world will need to sort out. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing, because the benefits certainly outweigh the drawbacks. In short, to avoid this area of research for fear of society’s reaction would be gravely irresponsible.

It’s important to note that SENS will not offer immortality, only the prevention of aging-related effects. So the estimated lifespan of a human will increase dramatically, but it won’t be infinite. People will still die from accidents, murder, war, suicide, disease, and all of the other non-age-related causes of death we all deal with today. The difference is that everyone will have the opportunity to keep a healthy body and a sharp mind until the day they die, regardless of their age.

The Interview

Perrott and de Grey together via pixel manipulation
Perrott and de Grey together via pixel manipulation

Aubrey de Grey is a researcher in the employ of Cambridge who is infamous as the architect of the SENS initiative. Kevin Perrott is the Executive Director of The Methuselah Mouse Prize competition (MPrize), which is a multi-million dollar bounty on the head of senescence.

DamnInteresting.com: With this research underway, do you anticipate seeing your 150th birthday?

Kevin: I’m fairly hopeful, but we are only at the very beginning of what might be a very long process and “there’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip” as my grandfather used to say. Such developments that will enable me to live to 150 may only arrive after I’m dead which would be a pity, but then at least I’d have had a shot at it which is a darn sight more than any other generation has ever had. I’m very much more certain that the next generation will certainly see lifespans of at least 150 years and am dedicating myself to ensuring that day arrives as soon as possible.

Aubrey: I think I’d put the chance of my reaching 150 at around 30-40%. I’m very healthy in the ways that seem to matter for aging (insulin sensitivity, levels of oxidised molecules in my blood, that sort of thing), so I think I have at least a 50% chance of reaching 90 without any medical treatment over and above what’s available today. If the rate of progress against age-related diseases and frailty continues at current rates, I probably have an 80% chance of making 90. I think there’s also a 50% chance that there will be treatments available in 25 or 30 years that will be able to double the remaining lifespan of people who naturally have 30 years left in them, and that will include me it I’m right about the above, since I am only 42 at present. So that would get me to 125 or so. And I think there’s probably a 90% chance that people who benefit from those therapies will achieve “escape velocity” — the therapies will be improved faster then the remaining flaws in them catch up with us, and more or less every person who reaches 125 will reach 150. So multiplying all that together, I get to around 30-40%.

DamnInteresting.com: How are your organization’s ideas generally received by scientists working in more traditional areas of study?

Aubrey: It’s necessary to distinguish between the Mprize and SENS here. SENS is still in the early stages of being understood well enough by my colleagues to allow them to comment expertly on it (though a few of them have been inclined to comment anyway!). The Mprize, on the other hand, is seen as a legitimate and imaginative way to raise the profile of aging research without trivialising it. That’s why I was able to get such top experts onto the scientific advisory board and why several equally eminent people have signed up as competitors or potential competitors.

Kevin: I’m actually surprised given the subject matter at how well the idea is received in traditional scientific circles. Aging is after all, very traditional, and to say that we shouldn’t tolerate the dysfunction that occurs through time is akin to saying pigs can fly to some. It should be noted that the idea of curing aging is better understood by traditional sciences more involved with physics and engineering than biogerontology. To an engineer, aging is a problem to be solved, while to most biogerontologists, (not all), it is an intellectual puzzle to be deciphered. However, no matter what the motivation for the study of aging, the application of research to decreasing the suffering of the elderly will be welcomed by all.

DamnInteresting.com: Does death provide any known useful benefit to the biosphere which would need to be satisfied through artificial means if SENS is realized (For example, does a limited lifespan prevent diseases from adapting indefinitely to the point that they become an insurmountable threat)?

Aubrey: It’s as good as certain that no such benefit exists. For one thing, every other species is going to carry on with its current lifespan — so really the only way we could have this problem is as a health problem for humans. But that makes the argument circular, because if indefinite lifespans did make us unable to prevent the appearance of really bad diseases then those diseases would start killing lots of us and the problem would solve itself.

Kevin: Death serves no purpose except to provide fertilizer, something which can be obtained almost ad infinitum from other sources. As Aubrey said, if death provides some benefit, the problem will solve itself. The only way to really see if this non-intuitive proposition has any merit is to deal with the rather large burden of death and suffering due to age-related disease and see what happens, something I think most would be happy to be around to determine.

DamnInteresting.com: Do your theories encounter any friction from religious groups?

Kevin: Very little actually. Most religions value human compassion and have pretty strict prescriptions commanding them to lessen suffering where they can. There doesn’t seem to be a religious imperative to die that anyone has pointed out to me although I have seen many which tell them to live. If you know of any that seem to indicate death is an obligation, please send it to me. Extending the healthy human lifespan seems to be quite compatible with religious thought. Even if some people take their dogma and try to make a nihilist argument with them, most will not. Extended lifespans are really no threat to religions which have shown themselves to be quite adaptable and will evolve as they have managed to evolve over the centuries to accommodate all sorts of social change.

Aubrey: Remarkably little. As the world’s most high-profile researcher into extreme life extension I would have expected more opposition from such groups, notwithstanding Kevin’s absolutely correct point that religions if anything instruct their followers to pursue the elimination of age-related decline because it causes suffering. Maybe as the research starts to show real results and the general public start to believe that it’ll really happen, this sort of opposition will increase. I hope it won’t, of course, but we’re ready to meet it if it does.

DamnInteresting.com: Are you a religious person?

Aubrey: I’m agnostic — I don’t think that religion is contradictory to science. But I also know I’m living my life in just the same way as I would if I were sure that God did or didn’t exist, so I don’t think about it much.

Kevin: I believe there is a God, but beyond that I really don’t speculate as I find that I am most effective in helping others when I focus on practical rather than metaphysical considerations. The suffering of aging is universal and cuts those of all faiths (and those of no faith) with the same knife and the hope of lessening that suffering reaches past any barrier.

DamnInteresting.com: Can the SENS treatments theoretically reverse aging? That is, can a person who is elderly when SENS comes to fruition have their youthful appearance and vigor restored?

Kevin: Certainly, but the farther along they are in the aging process, the more work will need to be done and the more difficult and dangerous (and lengthy) the process will be. It should also be noted that the first generation SENS oriented therapies will be crude and risky in comparison to refined versions that will come later. Only the most desperate will want to try them, but with demonstrated efficacy, they will rapidly improve.

Aubrey: Kevin has it absolutely right. One other corollary of this is that if you’re only 50 or so when the first SENS therapies arrive, and you’re in pretty good shape, it may be safest to delay treatment for five or ten years while the therapies are refined, because you’re not very likely to die in that time from aging and these first therapies might do more harm than good. Twenty years down the road, the therapies will be safe enough that 50 will be an ideal age to start treatment — maybe even 40 if you have a predisposition to one or another major age-related disease.

DamnInteresting.com: What about reactions from men and women in the medical profession? Perpetual youth is the ultimate realization of medicine, but it will put a lot of doctors out of business.

Kevin: Quite the opposite, the development and application of real anti-aging medicine will require a huge increase in number and training of doctors. I think it would be fair to say that their role will evolve, but not at all be obviated. Staying alive takes a lot more work and consumes more resources then being dead and doctors help us when the unknown happens, and the unknown will always happen. There will always be a need for doctors, freedom from age-related death doesn’t mean freedom from disease or make anyone invulnerable.

DamnInteresting.com: Has your group researched the possibility that the human brain has a maximum capacity for information? Dr. de Grey touches on this in his FAQ, stating that we “forget” less important memories, but does medical evidence support the notion that forgetting a memory releases that storage space in the brain?

Aubrey: The way we store memories (including things that aren’t exactly facts, like our personality) is still something we know incredibly little about. But psychologists have done research on what the elderly remember about their lives, and there turns out to be a “reminiscence bump” (that’s what they call it!) — people tend to remember things that happened in adolescence and early adulthood better than earlier or later events, except that events in the most recent few years are also better recalled. One explanation for this is that the age of the bump is when the most interesting/memorable things are happening to people; and the second bump (the memory of recent events) shows that people are laying down new memories in favour of less recent, unused ones. How this works at the cellular and molecular level is a big research area, but it does work.

DamnInteresting.com: How much consideration (if any) does the MPrize organization give to the possibility of abandoning the “human machine” altogether? If progress in computing and prosthetics outpaces medicine, it may be possible to store one’s consciousness within a completely artificial, maintainable vehicle before SENS is fully realized.

Kevin: But would you be ‘you’ inside such a vehicle, or just a ‘copy’?.. and would ‘you’ even care about such a detail at that point? Certainly, the questions of the nature of consciousness and the possibility of duplicating our own within a computer are not new, but they are not much closer to being answered than when they were first asked. The Mprize is involved completely in using the tools we have at hand today to address the biological problem of aging and have really focused on this as a possibility. I do however look forward to a day when my computer asks, “Who am I?” and “Google your own News.”

Aubrey: Most thinkers in this area tend to talk these days in terms of a step-by-step progression to ceasing to be made out of meat. The big unknown is of course whether the brain can “run” at all on hardware other than its natural one. Personally I’m a first-things-first sort of guy, so I’m more focused on the more mundane approach of cleaning up the damage of aging fast enough to maintain youth.

DamnInteresting.com: Although it seems counterintuitive, some argue that perpetual youth might increase society’s respect for life since death would no longer be an absolute. Consequently, some people predict that murder, suicide, and wars would all see dramatic declines if a cure for aging is ever found. Would you agree with this notion?

Aubrey: Yes, I think we will indeed respect life much more and the world will be far less violent. It’s also possible that we’ll become very averse to risk of accidental death as well as premeditated death, which could have drawbacks, but I think we’ll find ways to handle that — for sure it’s not an important enough problem to justify our not trying to develop these therapies as fast as possible.

Kevin: I think the value of life will definitely go up as people gain longer lifespans. What people value with regards to aging, is the potential for being productive which is afforded by time. The closer you get to the ‘end’ the less potential you have and subsequently less perceived ‘value’. I’ve always found it interesting that the symptoms of accelerated aging in children with Progeria is seen as something horrific while those same symptoms in an elderly individual barely draw comment. As lives lengthen and the potential contribution of the elderly increases, seeing that growing potential diminished by suffering will be viewed as a loss that society can ill afford.

DamnInteresting.com: Does your organization worry that the technology to cure aging may also halt any natural evolution in humankind?

Aubrey: Not at all. Human evolution is happening a lot faster now than it used to, because of the changes to our vulnerability that have resulted from the discovery of hygiene, antibiotics and so on. Lots of aspects of SENS will use genetic manipulation, so we’ll be evolving as a result of our own medicine, without needing to rely on chance and selection the way evolution has always done so far. Whether that’s “natural” depends on your definition, I think — I would say that all human activity is natural, because humans themselves are natural.

Kevin: Our quite naturally evolved intelligence has enabled us to develop technologies to overcome our biological limitations and thrive in environments which we could never otherwise survive in. Far from limiting natural human evolution, technology enables and accelerates it.

DamnInteresting.com: Can the average individual do anything to help further SENS research and/or the MPrize?

Kevin: Absolutely. Donate to the Mprize or to SENS research directly. Any amount, and I’m serious… ANY amount. Get your name on the donors list and put an optional testimonial and photo up to show others you believe aging is a legitimate target for medical intervention. Just as importantly, read a lot and tell others what you know. Don’t be put off or surprised at the responses you receive if they are negative. Hopeless people tend to not like having their hopelessness pointed out. Most of all, if you have elderly loved ones, a mother, a father or favorite ‘uncle’ or ‘aunt’, hug them and hold onto them tight, even if they wonder why, and if you can, don’t let go. The world needs them now, more than ever.

Aubrey: What he said. Also, look out for new initiatives in 2006 regarding the involvement of the Methuselah Foundation in funding targeted research in SENS areas.

The Prize

Currently at over $3 million, portions of the MPrize are offered to researchers who can produce mice which outlive the current longevity record-holders, and to those researchers who develop treatments which rejuvenate mice that are already late in development. Such laboratory techniques could eventually be translated into treatments for humans, or so the theory goes. The MPrize is a clever way of increasing awareness of the SENS initiative, and giving researchers some motivation to work in this area of study.

The ultimate realization of SENS would offer enormous benefits to humanity… No rest homes, no Alzheimer’s disease, no cataracts, no degradation in memory or brain power, no need for social security, and no more spending one’s adult years on a long, steady decline. Sign me up.

If the MPrize is successful in increasing research in SENS and the elimination of aging, we could begin to see the initial technologies appearing within the next few decades. When lifespans become indefinite, we’ll have to revise the old axiom which states that nothing is certain but death and taxes. Perhaps in a perfect world, nothing is certain.