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The feasibility and desirability of indefinite youth: recent advances from unexpected quarters Aubrey de Grey Department of Genetics, University of Cambridge Email: Website: Structure of this talk Feasibility the “seven deadly things”

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The feasibility and desirability of indefinite youth: recent advances from unexpected quarters

Aubrey de Grey

Department of Genetics, University of Cambridge




Structure of this talk

  • Feasibility
  • the “seven deadly things”
  • help from organisms with no aging problem
  • Desirability
  • a lifelong skeptic thinks for himself
  • repugnance: pros and cons
  • religion’s Achilles heel: lack of apathy
  • and more…

FAQ #1:

What is your big idea?


Aging in a nutshell

Metabolism (the hugely messy network of homeostatic processes that keep us alive)


Pathology (the hugely messy network of antihomeostatic processes that kill us)

This is not controversial -- indeed, it is why most biogerontologists think there’s little hope of curing aging for ages


A very simple observation

Aging is indisputably a side-effect of essential biochemical and cellular processes


Its functional effect (loss of performance) is delayed

Putting it another way:

Being alive must have immediate side-effects, since metabolically active molecules are short-lived


Those effects must accumulate, and have a threshold level below which they are harmless


Aging in slightly less of a nutshell

Metabolism ongoingly causes damage


Damage only eventually causes pathology

This turns out to be very useful


Three paradigms for intervention

Gerontology Engineering Geriatrics

Metabolism Damage Pathology

Claim: only the “engineering” approach can achieve substantial extension of human healthspan any time soon


FAQ #2:

That’s all a bit abstract and theoretical, innit?


FAQ #3:

Yes, but that’s just an analogy: why believe it?


Metabolism Damage Pathology:

The seven deadly things


FAQ #4:

How do you know this list is complete?


Mitochondrial biogenesis: ripe for tweaking

de Grey 2000, Trends in Biotechnology 18:394-399


Is it really that easy? No, but....

Gearing 1986: one small protein relocated in yeast

Nagley 1988: shown to be functional

Galanis 1991: a second small protein relocated in yeast

Lander/Lodish 1990: suggestion of therapeutic potential

Zullo 2000 (after 9 years): one big protein in rodent cells

Manfredi 2001 (after 6 years): same one in human cells

Guy 2002 (after 1 year): a different one in human cells


Clues from very unexpected quarters

1990: Chlamydomonas reinhardtii mito. genome sequenced

SIX of the “dirty baker’s dozen” missing!

Feb 1998: NONE cloned; AdG starts complaining about this

July 1998: King/Gonzalez-Halphen collaboration begins

~2001: C. reinhardtii COX2, COX3, ATP6, ND4L cloned

2002: C.r. ATP6 found to work unaltered in human cells

1991: Vigna radiata COX2 cloned

2002: importability found to depend on TWO a.a. changes


Steps to biomedical application

Derive 13 cell lines, each mutant for just one protein

Develop constructs that rescue respiration in these cells

Combine all 13, seek respiration without any mtDNA

Assay competence in mice using germline transformation

Assay competence in mice using somatic gene therapy

--- to get to here should take 6-8 years ---

6) Test in humans as for mitochondriopathies


A taster of tomorrow’s talk

- Lysosomal junk causes atherosclerosis, macular degeneration and most -- if not all -- forms of neurodegeneration

- It accumulates because we lack enzymes to break it down

- Such enzymes seem to exist in some soil bacteria!

- As with plant mitochondrial genes, these can in principle be exploited therapeutically



Convincing the world that aging is bad:

futile until we really rejuvenate mice?



breaking the global trance



Consider some standard excuses for condemning 100,000 people to death, every day, forever:

“Wouldn’t it be crushingly boring?”

“How would we pay the pensions?”

“What about starving African children?”

“Dictators would rule forever!”

Claim: nobody is really that dumb

-- they MUST be in a trance


A heartening convert

Who's Afraid of Life Extension?

Harry R. Moody, Institute for Human Values in Aging International Longevity Center-USA

When I began to prepare to write this article, I was clear and confident about my direction. Anti-aging technologies, I was sure, are a snare and a delusion … It is a line of thought I have held for many years …

But the more I thought about my skepticism and hostility to life-extension technology, the more uneasy I became. Gradually, as I reflected on my uneasiness, I found it more and more difficult to rationalize my strong rejection of life extension.


Yes, Harry Moody said this

… within mainstream gerontology, anti-aging medicine is widely viewed with hostility and skepticism (an incipient form of “gerontological correctness”?). But we are entitled to wonder: Are the arguments against anti-aging medicine valid, or are the opponents of anti-aging medicine (including me) simply gerontological Luddites?

If one lifelong opponent can wake HIMSELF up, there is hope yet…


Another unexpected ally (eventually…): the wisdom of repugnance

“Offensive.” “Grotesque.” “Revolting.” “Repugnant.” “Repulsive." These are the words most commonly heard regarding the prospect of human cloning. .... Even Dolly's creator has said he "would find it offensive" to clone a human being.

Revulsion is not an argument; and some of yesterday's repugnances are today calmly accepted -- though, one must add, not always for the better. In crucial cases, however, repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason's power fully to articulate.

Would anybody's failure to give full rational justification for his or her revulsion at these practices make that revulsion ethically suspect? Not at all. On the contrary, we are suspicious of those who think that they can rationalize away our horror

Leon Kass, 1997, “The Wisdom of Repugnance”


Why is this useful?

Leon Kass said it

Our wisdom about aging is precisely a wisdom of repugnance -- well, mine is…

Repugnance can go down as well as up


Another unlikely ally in the making: A4M

- Business:promoting “anti-aging” products

- Policy:“open-mindedness” -- anyone can buy a stall at the expo right next to the meeting, sell magnetic water or whatever, and they do

- Interpretation:profit first, efficacy second

- Resulting reputation:oiliest of the snakes


My abstract, intro at the A4M-funded Singapore conference 6 weeks ago

“Anti-aging medicine does not currently exist, in the sense in which the term ‘medicine’ is generally used. Medicine is biomedical technology that, at least for most recipients, effectively treats the primary symptoms of the condition against which it is claimed to act. The primary symptom of aging is indisputably death, and no existing product appreciably delays death from aging.”

And what happened?


- Bob Goldman cornered me for an hour to discuss how we can work together

  • - I was asked to give a similar talk at A4M in Las Vegas in December
  • Ditto an A4M-sponsored conference in London in September
  • One simple interpretation: I am in the ascendancy, hence a good ally to have
  • Why did I accept (“academic suicide”)?

Why am I taking this risk?

The anti-A4M movement (Olshansky, Hayflick) is backfiring, because everyone who sells anything downplays its flaws - hence their criticism is not considered fair

The “A4M community” are in much less of a pro-aging trance than most people

They are numerous and their customers quite affluent

They want their business to last long-term


The rational theist

Points to be carefully noted:

1) Fundamentalists (very numerous, very powerful) do, in the end, follow the doctrine as it evolves

2) God deprecates hastening death, however good the afterlife is claimed to be

3) God also deprecates apathy

The most invulnerable to the life-extension crusade is “Yes, we should cure aging ASAP, but I don’t feel like it”


The hope that dare not speak its name

Little known fact: Len Hayflick looks after his health

Phenomena not to be ignored:

- Death penalty abolished throughout Europe

- Vietnam war rather less popular than WWII

- Britain banned gun ownership after one mass murder

- No war in Western Europe for 59 years - not seen since Roman times

- Canada (and Norway, etc)


Let’s roll