A talk on eliminating human ageing

Last night I went to a talk by Dr. Aubrey de Grey, who explained why he thinks the elimination of human ageing is a reasonable technological goal, achievable within the lifetimes of people alive today.

I’d been invited by a friend and, honestly, for a few minutes I wondered whether it was going to be whackjobbery. By the end I was impressed enough to want to read more on the subject.

In hindsight, he reminds me of Ray Kurzweil. And not just because of the beards. Like the man behind the Singularity, Dr. de Grey’s ideas seemed, from a lay perspective, to hang together. They certainly didn’t collapse under their own weight, and I eventually hit the limit of my own ignorance: I’m not a biologist, so have no idea whether his claims actually make sense in the real world. But I was impressed by the logic and apparent ingenuinty of his arguments, as well as his willingness to say ‘I don’t know’ to some questions – ‘what would be the effect on the brain of reversing ageing?’, for example.

Dr. de Grey’s idea goes something like this:

  • Ageing and death are caused by the accumulation of ‘damage’ in our bodies.
  • The cumulative effects of this damage eventually causes a pathology, which, no matter how it is treated, must eventually be a downward spiral to death.
  • We don’t understand enough about the human body to prevent the damage happening in the first place. Any intervention in a system we don’t understand is likely to result in failure, if not more problems.
  • The treatment of the damage, however, need not be reliant upon an understanding of the underlying causes. Once we have a solution that can treat all types of damage, at least up to some degree, we can begin to extend lifespans.
  • Once the rate of progress of damage treatment methods reaches what he calls the ‘longevity escape velocity’, repeated applications will allow people to effectively live forever.

As I said, I’m no biologist, but I’ve read enough popular science that the damage theory of ageing isn’t completely new to me. So I don’t think this was made up. The damage hypothesis seems reasonable on the surface, but I wanted more detail, even at the risk of not understand it. What is this ‘damage’?

He went into detail, listing the seven types of damage that are thought to result in all the problems of ageing. He claimed that this list, not of his writing, is widely accepted among scientists, and hasn’t changed since 1982. They seemed specific: mutations in DNA, protein crosslinks, junk in cells, junk outside cells…At this point I had to take his word for it that this was indeed the case.

Dr. de Grey pointed to two of the damage types and said that theoretical treatments are already in the pipeline, although far from trivial. One of these was stem cell therapy, which is obviously quite the exciting and challenging area. He then pointed to the remaining five, and said that there were theoretical possibilities for treatment that, reading between the lines, research hasn’t started on yet. But, he said, none were insurmountable.

He went into detail on one specific problem, relating to the issue of breaking down harmful components inside cells. This, he said, is extremely difficult because the harmful components are by their very nature difficult to break down, or the body’s repair mechanisms would have done it for you (these mechanisms are extremely efficient, but can’t handle the extreme cases, which become ‘damage’). So what’s to do? Well, his idea relates to the wonder of microbes. In any environment, microbes will adapt to break down substances. There are apparently microbes found next to motorways which can break down rubber. This is a major part of research into the disposal of environmental waste. But where could we find microbes that would break down these hard-to-attack substances inside cells? His answer: graveyards. Bodies are being decomposed all the time, so there must be microbes present that can deal with these problems. So, it seems, it has proved.

Obviously I had to take his word for it that this was true. But this solution is elegant and out-of-the-box rather than ridiculous – exactly the kind of thing that turns up regularly in scientific breakthroughs. While skeptical, I was prepared to believe this could be the case.

He claimed to have similar approaches for all of the types of damage, and soon after this the talk ended. He was hammered with questions from the Oxford Science Society audience, and on the whole did a good job of responding. As I mentioned, he was prepared to say ‘I don’t know’ when necessary, and he expertly fielded the nuttier end of ‘are you going to make people get licenses to have children, then’ queries. He’d obviously spent plenty of time thinking about the ramifications of a ‘post-ageing society’, including that we’d all be a damn sight more careful crossing the road, although didn’t claim to have solutions to every problem.

The only reddish flag were his repeated references to the disdain in which his scientific colleagues hold him. He didn’t compare himself to Galileo or anything – the moment anyone does this you know they’ve lost it – but it was a little unnecessary. An orange-ish flag, I’d say.

I couldn’t come to any kind of conclusion – nobody without biological expertise could. He was a good public speaker, and I’m aware of my propensity for putting more trust into people with this skill. But my skepticism level is low enough that I’m interested in the opinions of others in the field, and shall watch out for his name in the future. He runs the Methusalah Foundation, which offers cash prizes to anybody who can extend the life of a mouse, and he’s written a book on the subject called ‘Ending Aging1 that should be out in the UK before too long. I’ll try to read some reviews. A very interesting evening, and recommended if he ever comes to your town.

  1. I have no idea how to properly spell the latter word []