By Joris Bellwinkel
Aubrey de Grey wants to rid the world of aging so that people can live forever. That may sound like the plot of a science-fiction movie, but de Grey doesn't like science-fiction movies. "They are a pain in the ass and make my life much harder," he says. We find out why.
Almost every week, Aubrey de Grey gives a speech to an audience somewhere in the world. The Oxford-educated researcher walks to the stage, makes a few small jokes, and then tells his listeners about his quest to extend human life by ridding the world of age-related diseases. Over the years, he has become a seasoned speaker. He's mildly provocative and sometimes ironic, but always sharp and convincing. He is now the most familiar face on the conference circuit on the topic of regenerative medicine. This is partly due to his speaking qualities and partly due to his characteristic waist-length beard.
The best way to understand de Grey's vision is to understand his definition of aging: "The life-long accumulation of damage to the tissues, cells, and molecules of the body that occurs as an intrinsic side effect of the body's normal operation." A human body can tolerate some damage, but too much causes diseases. While you cannot eliminate aging from the body entirely, de Grey is convinced that there are ways for medicine to intervene. He proposes regenerative medicine, a process of replacing or regenerating human cells and eliminating all deadly cellular processes along the way.
If aging is eventually defeated and people no longer get sick, lives will get much, much longer. "Which one of you wants to live forever?" BBC HARDtalk presenter Stephen Sackur asks the audience during his investigative interview with de Grey at the St. Gallen Symposium. Only a few hands go up. Then de Grey turns to the audience and asks, "But who wants to get Alzheimer's? Hands, please!" Not one hand goes up. "There's no curing Alzheimer's or cancer or cardiovascular disease without curing aging," de Grey says triumphantly. "You should get that."
It all sounds like a science-fiction movie, but de Grey didn't find his ideas in one of those. "They are a pain in the ass and make my life much harder," he says. "Certainly, these movies entrench the misconceptions people have. The movies that are made are movies that are made to sell, and those movies pander to people's preconceptions." And de Grey doesn't like the preconceptions of most people.
The public he usually stands in front of is not really that interested in the scientific processes behind regenerative therapy. They care more about the moral implications and the societal impact of his research. So they ask questions about overpopulation, about clashing generations, about dictators living forever, about people who want to commit suicide, about God and about nature. De Grey is always prepared and has an answer for each of them. "It's been a very long time since I got a question that I haven't heard before," he explains. "My answers have been getting a bit more aggressive over the years, a bit more impatient, but I've always seen it as part of the job." De Grey has turned from researcher to part-time philosopher.
Making an Impact
And he's a success. At the end of the interview with Sackur, de Grey again turns to the audience. "I'd like to know how many of you now want to live forever," he asks. Almost half the audience raises their hands this time.
Did he expect this to happen? "Oh, I was pretty pleased, actually," he says. "I often make less of an impact than that. Of course, most of the time we don't have votes at the beginning and end, so it's hard to tell, but maybe I could make this a standard thing."
De Grey is noticing a shift in the general attitude toward regenerative therapy. "Definitely things are getting easier -- not nearly quick enough, but the whole tone of this conversation is now very different than it was 10 years ago," he says. "Back then you couldn't really have these discussions. People called me controversial, a maverick. Now people ask you questions with an expectation that you actually will be able to teach them something."
Still, most people don't seem to like thinking about living forever. "There are a lot of things that people don't like to think about," de Grey says. "People don't like to think about getting old and getting sick either. They pretend it's not going to happen, until it does."
But will people only accept it when the actual therapy is on the market? "I think it will happen before that," he says. "I think it will come at the moment when there is really decisive, unequivocal proof of concept in the laboratory. If we are able to take mice that are already in middle age and we rejuvenate them well enough that they will double their age, people will know that it's only a matter of time. After that, my job will be done, all the ethical debate will go away and there will be no shortage of money. Then I'll retreat to glorious obscurity and never do another interview."
Regenerative therapy doesn't sound cheap. But it doesn't discourage de Grey. "From the point of the government, this technology will actually be a negative cost," he points out. "It will not only prevent people from being sick; it will also provide these people with a way to contribute wealth to the society as they carry on working. So these medicines will pay for themselves really quickly. It will be economically suicidal for any country to not give this medicine for free to anyone old enough to need it."
Wishful Thinking or Naïveté?
De Grey says longevity will also impact the labor market. "Work will be a whole different concept by then, due to automation," he says. "Most people probably won't work at all. They will just be having sex."
While that may sound great, even sex is probably going to get boring after a thousand years. If you can extend lives for unlimited time, should you not also be able to end lives at any time? Surprisingly, de Grey doesn't expect more freedom to employ euthanasia. "Euthanasia won't be any more common," he says. "Now, the only time when it's considered is when someone is terminally ill, and the whole point here is to stop getting terminally ill."
What de Grey doesn't understand is why a person, being in physically good shape, would want to die at a certain point in life, or die at all. In his vision, people want to live as long as possible, even if this means living forever. He also thinks that people won't want to have more children when they live longer, that people in powerful positions won't stay in the same job forever, and that regenerative therapy won't be misused by dictators. You could call his assumptions wishful thinking -- or a bit naïve. His lack of reflection seems problematic.
De Grey is now 51. He's probably too old to profit from the regenerative research he promotes. But he's not doing it for himself, or for one individual, he says. He is doing it for everybody. "I'm definitely driven by humanitarian motives," he says. "This technology will happen. The only question is: How much faster will it happen because of my efforts? Every single day that I bring forward the defeat of aging is a hundred thousand lives. So that's whole hell of a lot."
Aubrey de Grey is the founder of the SENS Research Foundation, which began in 2009. The foundation is aimed at treating all age-related disease. He elaborates in detail on the topic of regenerative medicine in his 2007 book Ending Aging. (Photo by Caroline Marti.)