The Quest for Indefinite Life III:
The Progress of SENS

Aubrey de Grey
Issue XXIV - July 31, 2004
Recommend this page.
A sample image

The curious case of the catatonic biogerontologists

The SENS strategy as described here purports to have all the characteristics that should make it persuasive: it's detailed, it's thorough and it's all firmly based on established experimental work in the various relevant areas of biology. So, you may well ask, where's the catch? Why, on all the many documentaries on aging that remain so popular, don't my colleagues come out and advocate the work that I advocate?

There are three main reasons why most mainstream gerontologists remain so conspicuously absent from the growing band of vocal advocates of the SENS approach to curing aging. They are all understandable, but given the importance of the problem and the key role that senior specialists play in determining public opinion and hence public policy, I feel that none of them is a legitimate excuse.

The central reason is simple ignorance of the relevant science. Biology -- even human biology -- is a very big subject, so nobody can hope to understand it all in depth. Thus, biologists restrict themselves to understanding in depth a rather narrow subset of biology and they trust each other to focus on the other areas. Unfortunately, this strategy relies utterly on having a good instinct for when an area not hitherto perceived as relevant to one's own area has become so as a result of a new piece of work. Most of the areas that I have introduced into the biology of aging have so far received only limited attention because most biogerontologists don't instinctively see how they could be useful.

The second reason is really subsidiary to the first, in that its importance is in sustaining the ignorance I just referred to. The progress of ideas always has enormous inertia, on account of the emotional, intellectual and financial investment that those who hold conventional views have made in those views. Scientists, like others, find it difficult to write off that investment and embrace a new paradigm even when the argument for that new paradigm is very comprehensive. This manifests as a reluctance to consult relevant scientific literature, for example, or even to entertain the idea that such literature is relevant in the first place. It also manifests as a preference for avoiding overt debate on such matters, since any such debate opens up the risk of being forced to acknowledge the superiority of the new paradigm. None of this is conscious, but it is an indescribably powerful force against progress. In this case, the idea that reversing aging might be easier than slowing it down a bit is so counter-intuitive that many of my colleagues are inclined to dismiss it out of hand before taking the time to look at my argument in detail.

The third reason my colleagues mostly don't say what I say is political. Scientists prefer to promote and discuss what they're working on. They aren't so keen to tell people that they would be working on something altogether more interesting or ambitious if only their funders had the imagination and courage to fund it, because that's a quick way to lose funding even for unambitious work. Now, you might ask, why are funders so unambitious? In industry it's because of short-termism, of course: firms that can make money quickly and certainly with boring products will do so in preference to making money far in the future and with much less certainty with ambitious products, even if the amount of money on offer in the latter case is far bigger. In the public sector, the main reason is that funders don't want to be thought to be wasting tax-payers' money on blue-sky work with no chance of success. So, the ultimate problem is the pessimism of voters. But, of course, that pessimism is due precisely to what senior biogerontologists say and don't say on the television... This "triangular log-jam" is the fundamental problem with getting more money into life extension research.

It can be unblocked at any corner, of course. My work is focused on the "biogerontologists" corner because I know them all personally and because they are few in number. The quickest way to change the minds of scientists regarding research priorities, however, is to remember that scientists will do anything interesting for food. Hence, an alternative supply of funds is a solution:

Finally, both the scientists and the prospective philanthropists may be encouraged to take the plunge if a bit of publicity comes their way:

and this is one motivation for the Methuselah Mouse Prize.

In conclusion I should stress that many of my colleagues, on reading or hearing the castigation of them that I have rehearsed above, would say that in fact there is a wholly responsible reason why they are cautious in their public predictions of the rate of progress: namely, they think it would be irresponsible to engender unwarranted optimism. My answer is that experts can mislead the public just as powerfully by silence as by speaking out, if the public are predisposed to be pessimistic on the scientific issue in question, as they certainly are in this case. I therefore claim that biogerontology is a case where the general rule of not getting people's hopes up unduly is being taken too far. I have said so in print here.

What can you do to further the SENS effort?

If you're reading this page, you probably don't need any persuasion that the SENS effort is a good idea. If you do need that, start here.

IF YOU HAVE SOME SPARE AIR MILES: please consider donating them to the Methuselah Foundation to support my travel expenses, which constitute a large proportion of my biogerontology-related outgoings. I get quite a few expenses-paid invitations to conferences, but I also attend a lot of conferences where I pay my own way, and the Methuselah Foundation subsidises that. See here for more information on my financial support.

IF YOU'RE A BIOLOGIST: listen to the talks from the conference, IABG 10, that I ran in September 2003, and read my papers on the technologies we need to develop in order to cure aging and start work on your favourite one. Oh, and let me know, so that I can put you in touch with others who are working on the same field.

IF YOU'RE A JOURNALIST: write about my work, but most importantly of all please interview other mainstream biogerontologists (the more senior and high-profile the better) and ask them to explain why they don't think we'd cure aging any time soon by the approach I advocate. And also listen to the talks from IABG 10.

IF YOU'RE AN ENGINEER, COMPUTER SCIENTIST, ETC: learn some biology. I started making really well-received contributions to biogerontology after I'd been reading the literature for TWO MONTHS -- no kidding. Maybe I was lucky, but maybe it was just that scientists really need input from people with a different training and mindset. Don't take the easy way out of thinking that you can't help because you haven't got the right expertise.

IF YOU'RE WEALTHY: contribute to the Methuselah Mouse Prize fund, and ask me what research you could productively fund.

IF YOU'RE EXTREMELY WEALTHY: ask me more about the proposed Institute of Biomedical Gerontology.

IF YOU KNOW SOMEONE FITTING ANY OF THE ABOVE DESCRIPTIONS: why are you still reading? Go and tell them what they can do to help, and make sure they do it!

WHOEVER YOU ARE: talk to your friends/family/colleagues about what life would be like without aging and find out what they don't like about the idea. Get better at rebutting their arguments. You'll find that they will very quickly realise they have no arguments, but then it gets harder, because they will try to change the subject. Don't let them get away with this. Read my reasons why I think people should be working now to cure aging as soon as possible, and tell me if there are ways in which you think they can be improved or added to.

Timeframe for progress in life extension

All biogerontologists are asked one question more than any other by non-biologists:

By when do you think we'll start to see real life extension treatments?

Most of my colleagues absolutely refuse to answer this question, because they feel that no answer can be scientifically defended and hence that to provide an answer is to misuse their exalted status as scientists. I agree with that stance in all areas of science that are not medically relevant, but not in medical areas: I feel that those with the best information have a duty to state their best-guess timeframe, because that information determines people's life choices, whether or not the public's assessment of the reliability of what experts tell them is accurate. Thus, though I know I can't defend my chosen numbers (except the first one) robustly, I don't regard that as justifying silence.

Milestone 1. Control of mouse aging sufficient to kick-start a genuine "War on Aging"

With adequate funding: ten years from now; almost certainly not as soon as seven years, but very likely to be less than 20 years.

The degree of control that I consider sufficient is the ability to take a cohort of mice of a strain whose normal life expectancy is three years, do nothing to them until they are two years old, and get them to live an average of three more years, i.e. tripling their remaining life expectancy.

Detailed justification for this prediction can be found in my publications, which are here.

The main reason this milestone matters so much is that it will be the trigger for enormous social upheaval. Changes of life choices will not await the arrival of human life extension; they will occur as soon as that eventuality becomes widely anticipated.

Milestone 2. Control of human aging proportional to that described for mice in milestone 1

Starting from the time that the mouse target is achieved: 15 years; almost certainly not as soon as five years, and could be as much as 100 years.

The best I can do by way of justifying this is to consider the scenario in which we reach the mouse milestone without having made any progress whatsoever on the techniques that would be needed to translate it to humans. The main requirement at that stage will be extremely safe and effective gene therapy, both of the insertional variety (putting new genes into chromosomes) and the replacement ("gene targeting") variety (changing an existing sequence). Several approaches to these problems are already the focus of considerable ongoing research, so I feel that a 15-year timeframe is a reasonable one, at least once funding is increased by the factor that can be expected when a "war on aging" has been declared. However, we could of course be as wrong about aging as Nixon was in 1971 about cancer, which is why my upper confidence limit is as large as 100 years.

Milestone 3. Life expectancy an order of magnitude or more greater than at present

Of my three milestones listed here, this is the one that stuns most people -- and, as far as I can see, for the least justified reasons. My guess is that the average age of death of those born in wealthy nations at or after the achievement of milestone 2 will exceed 5000 years.

My logic here is pretty simple:

1) When we reach milestone 2, those with access to the relevant therapies will have an absolutely non-increasing risk of death per unit time -- they will not age. This is because we will be identifying, characterising and solving aspects of aging that appear at progressively later ages, faster than they progress to a life-threatening state. We have no idea at present what we will need to do to keep 200-year-olds hale and hearty, but that's OK, because we won't need that information for at least another 100 years. If we just pay attention to things that begin to appear in 180-year-olds as soon as we have any, as well as in 80-year-old chimpanzees as soon as we have them, and given the amount of effort we'll be putting in, our chances of perpetually keeping one step ahead of the problem are very good.

2) At present, the risk of death per unit time that Westerners experience in their early teens is such that if it were maintained indefinitely we would live to around 1000 years on average. (This calculation has been done many times with different data and some people get 700, some 1200; 1000 is a fair consensus.)

3) My expectation is that our risk-aversion will rise sharply if we perceive our lifespan as indefinite, so that this 1000-year life expectancy will be extended by a modest factor; a factor of five is my conservative guess. This of course relies on our risk-aversion being ubiquitous -- applying to the willingness to go to war, the effort to subvert new infectious diseases, etc, as well as our attitude to mere accidents -- but I see no reason why that should not be the case.

Recommend this page.

This TRA feature has been edited in accordance with TRA Statement of Policy.

Click here to return to TRA's Issue XXIV Index.

Learn about Mr. Stolyarov's novel, Eden against the Colossus, here.

Read Mr. Stolyarov's comprehensive treatise, A Rational Cosmology, explicating such terms as the universe, matter, space, time, sound, light, life, consciousness, and volition, here.

Read Mr. Stolyarov's four-act play, Implied Consent, a futuristic intellectual drama on the sanctity of human life, here.