Leading ageing expert Aubrey de Grey talks to Sheila Harney and Jessica Elkin on halting the ageing process and what it means for society
During his 20 years of work on the biology of ageing he has become well known for his often controversial views and eccentric manner. These centre on the largely theoretical potential to develop techniques to eliminate ageing from our bodies and extend human life expectancy significantly, for potentially up to 1,000 years.
We meet de Grey in a pub in Cambridge on a bright yet chilly Sunday afternoon. He is an intriguing figure; his cut-glass English accent contrasting with the Old Testament-style beard (apparently his wife is a fan) and eclectic attire.
Originally a computer scientist, he graduated from Cambridge in 1985, and spent several years working on artificial intelligence research in software verification. During that time he met his wife, a biology professor. "So over the next couple of years I kind of accidentally learnt a lot of biology," he explains. "Very gradually it began to dawn on me that we were never talking about ageing.
To me, ageing was the world's most important problem. It was so obvious that I never tested the assumption. I always presumed that everyone else thought the same."
Shocked to discover that biologists were not focusing on this issue, de Grey started to devote his spare time to educating himself on his wife's specialism, before eventually switching career fields to focus on the topic full-time a few years later. Although his first few papers were well received, once he began to talk about reversing the ageing process he struggled to gain acceptance within the scientific community: "You know, people have this crazy concept that ageing is natural and inevitable, and I have to keep explaining that it is not."
His views on ageing are simple. "The human body is a machine with moving parts and like a car or an aeroplane, it accumulates damage throughout life as a consequence of normal operation."
Historically, efforts to postpone the ill health of old age have focused on finding ways to clean up our metabolism so that we accumulate damage to the body more slowly. About 15 years ago, de Grey had a 'Eureka!' moment upon realising that the most practical way to achieve this would be to find ways to repair the damage rather than looking to slow it down. "I realised we can classify different types of genetic damage into seven major categories, for each of which there is a different repair approach". This is the focus of the SENS foundation. "We have all these diverse projects across various strands of research that we think need to be done, and because we are an independent non-profit charity, we have the luxury of being able to work on the hardest problems."
Although some of his views are met with scepticism and disbelief, he feels that the scientific community is become more accepting of his ideas, citing a recent breakthrough publication in Science, one of the world's leading scientific academic publications.
"As time goes on, our progress becomes more significant in proving the feasibility of my ideas. When I first started talking about these, people found them heretical and there was a lot of denigration from the scientific community, but I've gradually won them over. Other people are also making progress in actually implementing what we're doing. Just recently, an important US paper came out that showed you could extend the lifespan of mice using a particular type of damage repair that we'd been talking about for a decade."
The topic of longevity expansion has also featured in mainstream media of late, with a particular focus on preliminary studies that have found anti-ageing properties in drugs such as Metformin, Rapamycin and Resveratrol, which all demonstrate a phenomenon called calorie-restriction mimetics. De Grey explains what this means for his research. "Essentially, these are drugs that trick the body into thinking that it's in a famine situation when it isn't. Studies have shown that if you take a mouse or a rat and you reduce its normal food intake by 30%, it lives about 30% longer than it would otherwise.
"This was discovered 80 years ago and has been a major topic of interest among gerontologists. Unfortunately, it doesn't scale. The longer-lived the species that you look at, the less the effect of famine in terms of longevity.
"A few years ago, a couple of studies on calorie restriction in monkeys showed that you get a few per cent, if that, in terms of longevity increase from calorie restriction. And of course, the point is that if bona fide starvation/famine doesn't actually increase longevity much for long-lived species, you wouldn't expect drugs that mimic this effect to do much either. So I'm not very hopeful."
However, the recent interest in Metformin has led to a breakthrough with the regulatory authorities, especially in the US, in terms of broadening the drug's potential applications. Historically, as ageing was not considered a disease, it wasn't a medical condition for which a drug could be developed and approved. De Grey concedes that the media furore over Metformin has had one positive outcome for his studies: "Gerontologists and the regulatory people at the Food and Drug Administration agency in the US, have finally come to a common ground that allows ageing to be considered as a medical condition, which is a very positive development."
If de Grey's predications are solid, what does he think this means for the actuarial profession? "I sympathise with the actuarial profession, because the fact is, the people who pay you to do your jobs really don't want to know the truth."
Obviously, if his predictions come to fruition, there would be enormous implications for our industry; life and pensions in particular. Giant changes in life expectancy are likely to spark a renegotiation of pension contracts, as well as the way we approach our healthcare system, state benefit system and provide insurance. De Grey refused to be drawn on the wider impact that successfully achieving his goals could have, commenting: "I think it is foolish to speculate on what society is going to be like, even in 20 years, let alone 200 years from now. So many things are going to be different. The only thing we can do is prepare for as many alternative possibilities and consider how we might minimise any problems that might be created as a consequence of solving the problem of ageing."
He believes dwelling on the bioethical considerations is missing the point: "We have to recognise that the problem we have today is enormous. Therefore it's critical not to be intimidated by the prospect that we have too many people, or living longer might be boring, and not let those considerations actually slow us down in terms of the development of medicines that get ageing under control."
When questioned further, de Grey readily admits that the likelihood of his research successfully extending his own lifetime is low. "As for any pioneering technology, the timeframe is extraordinarily speculative. Nobody has the faintest idea how long it's going to take.
I put it at 20-25 years from now when we have a 50-50 chance of getting to a decisive level of comprehensiveness that works, which I've called longevity escape velocity.
If we do get there by then, I've got a fair chance of benefiting. But I have absolutely no doubt there's at least a 10% chance we won't get there for another 100 years because we hit new problems that we haven't thought of. So if I look at my own personal prospects, or the prospects of any other particular person, the timelines and uncertainty result in this all being very speculative."
He prefers to take a long-term approach and focus on the potential for wider benefits."It was 10 years ago I started to look at the causes of death and the percentage of people who die of age-related causes, which is rising fast.
The thought that every single day I could bring the defeat of ageing forward, which I probably do once a month, means something like 100,000 lives saved worldwide.This humanitarian aspect is important to me."
Aubrey de Grey will be a keynote speaker at the IFOA Health, Care and Protection Conference on 18-20 May, and also the Pension, Risk and Investment Conference on 31 May-2 June. Register at www.theactuary.com