July 05, 2005
Aubrey de Grey: Stop Feeling Ashamed Of Goal Of Rejuvenation

Writing in the European Molecular Biology Organisation's journal EMBO Reports Cambridge UK biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey makes the case for pursuing complete human rejuvenation as an achievable and desirable goal in an article entitled "Resistance to debate on how to postpone ageing is delaying progress and costing lives".

Before moving on to discuss the second, widely overlooked, source of political resistance to funding ageing research, we can already note how the traditional gerontological rhetoric has become an albatross—and perhaps always was. "Ageing is not a disease", as I noted earlier, has long been a slogan of gerontology. Politicians may be inclined to feel that, well, if ageing is not a disease, it is probably not something we ought to be spending much effort combating, then, is it? When we reflect that this is a gut feeling that most people, and thus most politicians, probably have at the outset—what Miller (2002) termed "gerontologiphobia"—and also that when money is tight its allocators seek excuses to narrow the list of candidate recipients, we see clearly that describing ageing as "not a disease" has severe rhetorical drawbacks, regardless of the value it may once have had in distinguishing biogerontology from other biomedical research.

This problem is in my view dwarfed, however, by the second difficulty that politicians may have in embracing biogerontologists' arguments: the merit of spending money in pursuit of a given goal depends not only on that goal's desirability but also on its feasibility. Those of us who do not suffer from gerontologiphobia are persistently awed by the logical contortions that gerontologiphobes perform when asked to justify their pro-ageing stance. Similar awe—although that might not be the word they would use—may be felt by politicians who encounter the efforts of gerontologists to extract from available data an argument that their work will probably cause substantial compression of morbidity in the foreseeable future.

Although the concept is much older, the term 'compression of morbidity' was introduced by James Fries in a paper published in 1980: "Present data allow calculation of the ideal average life span, approximately 85 years. Chronic illness may presumably be postponed by changes in life style [...] Thus, the average age at first infirmity can be raised, thereby making the morbidity curve more rectangular. Extension of adult vigor far into a fixed life span compresses the period of senescence near the end of life" (Fries, 1980). Even ignoring the questionable assumption of a fixed lifespan, we immediately see that Fries is not predicting that combating ageing will compress morbidity. Instead, he stresses "changes in life style"—not a noted sphere of biogerontological influence. Fries's hope that US morbidity would be compressed has been realized in the meantime, and the details of that change duly support the theory that lifestyle, rather than biomedical progress, is responsible. All the compression observed is in mild to moderate disability, which is substantially achievable by lifestyle changes, whereas absolutely no compression of severe morbidity has occurred (Fries, 2003).

Aubrey thinks many biogerontologists entered the field when there was little hope of ever stopping or reversing aging. Therefore most entered to satisfy their curiosity rather than to achieve goals which have practical uses.

I suspect that, in their heart of hearts, many of my colleagues in biogerontology secretly realize or at least fear the futility of compressing morbidity by manipulating ageing. These people face an unenviable problem: they are scientists trapped in a biomedical discipline, so their path of least resistance may be to submit to the gerontologiphobia of society and not rock the boat. I should explain what I mean by this. When many of today's senior biogerontologists entered the field, serious postponement of ageing was not realistic, and they therefore became biogerontologists partly—and in most cases, I believe, mainly—with the curiosity-driven motivations of a basic scientist rather than the goal-directed ones of an engineer or clinician. They find discovery fulfilling, and seek only the resources to carry on discovering more. Any talk of actually doing something about ageing is then a Fig leaf—the sort of camouflage that all scientists use to make society value their work without fretting that there is no guarantee that it will ever be useful. Perhaps this is why those who propound the most blatantly invalid reasons why our hitherto minimal rate of progress in postponing ageing cannot be accelerated—reasons transparently based on misuse of logic (Hayflick, 2004) or of extrapolation (Olshansky et al, 2001)—are often allowed to carry on espousing their views without challenge. There may be a tacit hope that the blinding unjustifiability of their pessimism will distract the attention of the funding bodies from the subtler contradictions in what mainstream gerontology is saying to justify its existence.

But we no longer live in that era when rejuvenation was absolutely out of the question. Biotechnology has come so far that genomes can be sequenced at increasingly faster speeds and for declining costs. Technologies developed for the semiconductor industry are being adapted to make microfluidic devices which allow increasingly precise and cheap manipulation of biological systems down at the scale of cells and molecules. Computers allow automation and scaling of processes which required enormous quantities of manual labor in past decades.

The accumulation of tools for biological science and biotechnology is enabling more ambitious undertakings. Many scientists are already attempting to develop treatments that effectively reverse some processes of aging. Scientists working today will find ways to, for example, grow replacement organs and to send stem cells into the body to do repairs. Freshly grown replacement organs and other freshly grown body parts will entirely reverse the age of whatever parts of the body they replace. Immunotherapies to remove extracellular junk have been tested in animals and humans and continue to be developed.

Today scientists are working on parts of the rejuvenation puzzle. Most do so in order to treat specific diseases which are the result of aging (e.g. heart disease, kidney failure) rather than as part of a systematic attempt to roll back all of the causes of aging. Their work is still very valuable. But the lack of widespread embrace of the larger goal of full rejuvenation inevitably means that little effort goes into some of the therapies needed for full rejuvenation. Unless the goal of full rejuvenation becomes the goal of biogerontology the gaps in the current efforts will go unaddressed for years to come.

Aubrey argues that the many different diseases associated with aging could be more effectively treated by rejuvenating the body rather than attack each disease. This idea can be grasped by looking at just a single organ, the liver for example. The liver can fail due to many reasons (e.g. a variety of pathogens, alcohol, trauma from an accident, genetic defects, environmental toxins, cancer, and still other diseases). Treatments can be developed for each disease and many labs are working on all these causes of liver failure. But a replacement liver will fix just about all of them. Even if the pathogens that cause liver damage can not be removed when a liver is replaced the pathogens take decades to destroy the liver. So a replacement liver would buy additional decades of life during which to find a cure for the pathogens. For cancer discovered at an early stage before metastasis a replacement liver would even effectively cure liver cancer.

Aubrey says we should not feel ashamed to declare the defeat of aging as a worthy and achievable goal.

Just as the purpose of oncology is to defeat cancer, the purpose of biogerontology is, and should be declared to be, to defeat ageing. Vintage cars do not age, because their owners have the dedication and expertise to give them the necessary maintenance. We will in due course have the expertise to maintain ourselves with similar fidelity, and few can doubt that we will then also have the dedication. Hastening that advance, therefore, is a legitimate and honourable goal of which we have been ashamed for too long.

I agree. The desire to live is not dishonorable. The desire for youthfulness is not decadent. We should pursue the goal of full rejuvenation and defeat all human diseases in the process.

Also see Reason's coverage of Aubrey's article.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2005 July 05 10:41 AM  Aging Debate

Robert Silvetz said at July 5, 2005 11:24 AM:

The interesting thing I bring away from this article is that the technical challenge, while daunting, may pale in front of the pyschological problem.

We have masses of humans inured to the idea of death with enormous inertia. What we are looking at is a mental block on a global and universal scale.

I mean, think about how many people, when you broach the topic of life extension (or even biologic immortality) recoil -- "You're playing god." or "I wouldn't want to live that long." etc etc.

Randall Parker said at July 5, 2005 11:36 AM:

Robert Silvetz states:

The interesting thing I bring away from this article is that the technical challenge, while daunting, may pale in front of the pyschological problem.

I fully agree.

Here's more: I think the psychological problem is bigger among scientists than among the general public. A significant portion of the public, if informed by many Nobel Prize winners, NAS members, Royal Society members, etc that we can reverse aging within the lifetimes of many now alive would react with "Oh what great news". Some would resist for a variety of reasons. But I think perhaps most would at least then consider it possible.

The problem is that the scientists, with rare exceptions, are not saying this.

The scientists who believe rejuvenation is an achievable goal ought to pipe up and say so. If this became the generally accepted wisdom funding for biomedical research would go up by a full order of magnitude or more.

josh said at July 5, 2005 12:47 PM:

"I wouldn't want to live that long." A lot of religious people might be anxious to get to heaven as well.

I would say to these people, "Hey, suite yourself"

Mark Plus said at July 5, 2005 9:07 PM:
I mean, think about how many people, when you broach the topic of life extension (or even biologic immortality) recoil -- "You're playing god." or "I wouldn't want to live that long." etc etc.

While this may seem tangential, I would argue that the success of the Intelligent Design ideology will inadvertently improve the cultural climate for biotechnological intervention into the aging process. ID'ers have gone out of their way to propagandize an explicitly "technological" way of understanding molecular biology, and therefore they have helped to legitimize the idea that disease and aging result from failures of potentially replaceable components.

Randall Parker said at July 5, 2005 9:37 PM:

Mark Plus,

The ID'ers are likely to argue that since we grow old we were designed to grow old and so if we try to circumvent that we are defying the will of our designer.

But then we defeat the will of whoever designed the bubonic plague too.

Matt said at July 6, 2005 2:46 AM:

"The ID'ers are likely to argue that since we grow old we were designed to grow old and so if we try to circumvent that we are defying the will of our designer"

Then we are going against this so called 'gods' will already. When an old person goes to ER and complains of chest pains do we say that god intended it and we wont treat you?

If we then found out this perosn had heart disease and we had this revolutionary treatment that could give this 80 year old a few more years, why shouldnt we? Lives are saved everyday and add days, months and years onto peoples lives because of medicine. We try to slow down age-related disease in old paitents. Isn't this going against ageing already?

We are already fighting ageing and we are trying to get at the root of age related disease but this isn't enough of course.

So that argument is false.

Matt said at July 6, 2005 2:51 AM:

If we don't think that ageing should be slowed or messed with then why don't scientist go ahead and develop better pain killers !

What is medicines goal? In the 20th century it was more about relieving the person of pain and clearing up infections etc... 21st century is about getting at the roots of the problem with diseases and curing them (including ageing) and not just making the patient comfortable by giving them the best pain killer available and telling them to deal with it.

Dan said at July 6, 2005 7:27 AM:

I think you are presenting this solution as a 'holy grail' - that is, claiming that our lives will be infinitely lengthened when we tick five or so items off our medical to do list. There is just no way this will come true. Every hurdle that the human race clears leads to another one down the line. Only when adults lived 70+ years did we clearly see the effects of alzheimer's.

You talk as if the human race will exist completely above nature, benevolent and eternal. Label me a cynic, but I don't see this happening. We are both part of and extension of mother nature, and as we reconfigure so too shall she. We can see it already in antibiotic resistant strains of infections all the way up to intellectual property debates preventing medicine from reaching people who need it.

Randall Parker said at July 6, 2005 8:11 AM:


That argument is false? You mean my argument about the IDers or the sorts of arguments that the IDers put forth? Look, they don't make sense. They are just building a big rationalization for how to dismiss natural selection as the process that created species.


Holy grail: I fully agree that for every problem we fix then we live longer to hit other problems. But if, say, we buy ourselves 50 more years then we have 50 more years to solve whatever problems come next. Aubrey de Grey has argued that we need to create large monkey colonies that get all the future SENS treatments. Since the monkeys age more rapidly they will develop the next set of problems before humans do. That'll give us time to develop treatments for the next set of problems.

But as we go forward at some point the rate at which new problems come up will drop.

No, I do not talk about the human race as benevolent and eternal. I certainly do not believe it to be either.

The ability to stay young is not the ability to live forever. There are still murder, suicide, accidents, and infectious diseases to worry about.

sr said at July 6, 2005 10:38 AM:

What shameful, despicable nonsense this all is, slobbering at the altar of "transhumanism"! What happened to cryogenics, by the way? I do not stoop to argue with Mr. de Grey's opinion of the technical challenge; it is enough to express my revulsion at his sentimentality. Ugh. Better a day as a jackal than a thousand years as a transhumanist. Leviathan will eat itself.

Mr de Grey's loathsomeness reminds me of Bertrand Russell's somehow.

Garson Poole said at July 6, 2005 3:33 PM:

I suspect that most religious individuals would favor extending the healthy human life span by several decades. However, detractors of enhanced longevity may wish to examine the radical descriptions of the aging process given in the book of Genesis. For example, here is an excerpt from the Catholic Encyclopedia:

At the time of his son's birth Henoch was sixty-five years of age. When Methuselah had reached the great age of one hundred and eighty-seven years he became the father of Lamech. Following this he lived the remarkable term of seven hundred and eighty-two years, which makes his age at his death nine hundred and sixty-nine years.

I believe that three major world religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, consider the descriptions given in Genesis relevant to understanding the world. Hence, one might argue that Aubrey de Grey's research program is attempting to allow humans to once again experience a long and full life.

Kurt said at July 8, 2005 9:11 AM:

unlimited opportunity to the individual. The right to unlimited freedom and opportunity is the foundation of our country as well as the social contract apon which our country is founded.

I believe that a class action lawsuit should be brought against the federal government on the part of anyone who has either suffered from age discrimination or has felt the impact of reduced economic opportunity as a result of age. This is a rather large number of people. The purpose of the lawsuit should not only to seek compensation for damages, but to provide the legal foundation for the following:

1) Reform of the FDA: The FDA should be required to recognize aging as a disease and should give “fast-track” approval for therapies designed to combat it, similar to the fast track approval process for AIDS therapies. The FDA should be forever banned from interfering with the manufacture, sale, and consumption of vitamin and other supplements as recognized by the 1994 supplements act. Lastly, the FDAs mandate should be restricted to ensuring safety of new therapies only, not proof of efficacy.

2) Reform of the medical establishment: The AMA should no longer be allowed to have influence over medical schools or to restrict admission into medical schools. All licensed MDs should be required to have technical undergraduate degrees. No more liberal arts MDs.

3) The federal government should be required to set up a fund of $10 billion that is to be awarded to researchers on a “X” (or M) prize basis for innovative work aimed at curing aging.

4) A separate “X-prize” like fund should be established for the purpose of developing and making available to the public affordable effective suspended animation for those of us who cannot live long enough for the SENS therapies to be developed.

5) Lastly, the presidents bioethics committee should be purged of any member who questions the individual’s right to an unlimited healthy youthful lifespan. Its mandate should be limited to discussions of reproductive issues ONLY.

A cure for aging would benefit everyone in our country. Restoring our population to youthful functionality would increase the productivity of our population and would, in turn, increase the productive output of our economy. This benefits everyone. If you become healthy and strong, you make more money and I can make more money selling products and services to you. There is no downside for anybody. The government itself benefits because it gets increased tax revenue because for people are prosperous. Since people no longer grow old, social security and medicare programs can be eliminated, thus freeing up even more capital for economic growth.

Its time we sue the federal government

jeffrey gordon said at July 8, 2005 4:01 PM:

"No more liberal arts MDs."

This is probably the single best suggestion for advancing anti-aging medicine and medicine in general. We need doctors to start thinking like engineers.

Jeffrey Gordon

Garson Poole said at July 8, 2005 11:37 PM:

On the theme of the backgrounds and requirements, I think it is interesting that Aubrey de Grey's primary academic background is not in the biological sciences. He has a Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Cambridge. A profile in Fortune magazine from June 2004 said that his "day job" at Cambridge was "computer associate" of a team probing the fruit-fly genome. Perhaps his atypical background has allowed him to boldly formulate and present a vision to "defeat ageing".

Science flourishes when there are a mixture of researchers. Some researchers work to make solid incremental progress and try to consolidate previous advances. Other researchers explore riskier hypotheses and grander visions. Some top-notch researchers do both.

Foolish Mortal said at July 21, 2005 10:22 PM:

Ray Kurzweil Aims to Live Forever

"Lee Silver, a Princeton biologist, said he'd love to believe in the future as Kurzweil sees it, but the problem is, humans are involved.

"The instinct to preserve individuality, and to gain advantage for yourself and children, would survive any breakthrough into biological immortality -- which Silver doesn't think is possible. The gap between the haves and have-nots would widen and Kurzweil's vision of a united humanity would become ever more elusive, he said."

Leftist ideology trumps the desire to live longer. Progress is bad because it falls unevenly. Living longer is bad because smarter people would have more time to oustrip dumber people. Even have-nots who live in indefinite youth and have every conceivable material and medical benefit we can imagine today would have less than the always-relatively-defined haves.

Their ideology is as extreme as the jihadists, but arguably more destructive, since they teach at Princeton, et. al. And they're everywhere -- just look at the comment above, by "sr."

Rachel Mai said at March 19, 2010 1:02 PM:

I love you and the work you are doing! You are a true scientist, as opposed to most of the people who are "in" science. Most of them actually appear to me to be riddled with superstition and not scientific at all. Maybe I just mean they are people who are not really smart enough to have a true sense of what are who they are and the real possibilities of their existence. Most people in science work off received ideas to quite a fantastic extent and therefore, are not really scientists.

What I think I mean by this is that you are aware of the need to consider ALL the facts of which you are aware, and to be aware of as many of them as you can possibly manage. A true scientist must be one who is really awake.

I look forward to following your progress in the future,and the progress of biogerontology as well, Aubrey. I hope you find lots of funding for this most important research.

I think people don't ask questions about the inevitability of disease, ageing and death mainly because they are heavily programmed not to ask for what would make them very happy, and not to ask too many questions. Kind of an engineered sleep of the masses. Personally, I don't believe it always has been that way. We are on the edge of another kind of consciousness right now-not everyone, but a lot of people and most of the people being born about now.

The work you are doing is a very important part of a new age of freedom.

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