Aubrey de Grey of the SENS Research Foundation is the advocate and scientist at the center of a diverse network of people and organizations who, collectively, are changing the world when it comes to aging, medicine, and research. It wasn’t so very long ago that the research community and its associated sources of funding were hostile towards any effort to consider the treatment of aging as a medical condition. Decades were lost to a scientific culture whose leading members wanted to distance themselves from “anti-aging” snake oil at any cost – including the sacrifice of any real possibility of progress. Change has come but slowly, and required outsiders such as de Grey to enter the research field and raise hell until the existing factions and establishments were forced to acknowledge the potential to extend healthy life and reverse the progression of age-related conditions. Younger researchers now benefit from a field in which they can build a better world, applying biotechnology to the causes of aging in order to alleviate this greatest cause of suffering and death. This field is no longer the poorly regarded backwater it once was, thanks to people like de Grey and his allies, but now one of the most exciting areas of modern life science research, the seed that will blossom into a vast and enormously beneficial industry in the years ahead.
Yet this is a transformation still in progress. The first battles have been won, the first rejuvenation therapies after the SENS vision of damage repair – those involving clearance of senescent cells – are well on their way to the clinic. But the majority of research programs and funding sources remain slow to change course. Funding for aging research remains minimal in comparison to funding for other areas of medicine. Where there is funding, it is still largely directed towards initiatives that cannot possibly do more than slightly slow aging, or merely patch over the symptoms of aging, as little attention is given to the cell and tissue damage that is the root cause of all age-related disease, dsyfunction, and death. Longevity science is a field in which the greatest challenge is not the discovery of great swathes of new information about aging, but rather to persuade the research community to make proper use of what is already known, and then fund that work sufficiently. All of the necessary classes of therapy needed for rejuvenation can be constructed based on the knowledge of twenty years ago; the development plans are set out in some detail. Yet all too much of the field remains focused on continued exploration of the details of aging as it operates in the absence of intervention.
This is where we come in. Our philanthropic support of organizations such as the Methuselah Foundation and SENS Research Foundation helps to move the research forward. Our investment in and support of startup companies working on SENS technologies helps to push meaningful therapies for aging closer towards the clinic. The growth and legitimacy of SENS and SENS-like rejuvenation research is something that our broader community has bootstrapped from an idea to its present state. We have succeeded to no small degree! There is much to do yet, however. Our ability to attract support to the most important lines of research and development has increased greatly in recent years, and will continue to soar as SENS approaches such as senescent cell clearance are proven out in trials and animal studies. Now is not the time to rest upon our laurels: so make a point to tell someone you know about the field of rejuvenation research, and that the promising therapies currently in development are the result of donations wisely made in past years. The more people who know today, the more supporters will join us in the years ahead, and this is far more a challenge of persuasion than a challenge of science at this stage.
If humanity were to appoint a general in our war against aging, Aubrey de Grey would likely earn the honor. The British author and biomedical gerontologist has been on the front line for years, researching ways to free the world of age-related disease and, ultimately, extend human life indefinitely. From the SENS Research Foundation Research Center (SRF-RC) in Mountain View, CA, foundation scientists conduct proof-of-concept research with the goal of addressing the problems caused by aging. They focus on repairing damage to the body at the molecular level, and their work is helping advance the field of rejuvenation biotechnology.
SRF-RC teams are currently focusing on two equally complex-sounding research projects, one centered on allotopic expression (a way to bypass the harmful effects of age-caused mitochondrial mutations) and the other on telomerase-independent telomere elongation (a little-researched process by which some cancer cells overcome mortality). Either project could lead to major breakthroughs in anti-aging treatments, but as de Grey explains, the path to immortality doesn’t just run through the science lab. While the research being conducted at the SRF-RC is far from simple, de Grey claims DNA mutations and cancer cells aren’t the biggest hurdles to anti-aging breakthroughs: “The most difficult aspect of fighting age-related diseases is raising the money to actually fund the research.” The nature of most science research is exploratory. Researchers don’t know that what they’re working on is going to yield the results they expect, and even if it does, turning basic research into income is no easy task. To support their work, most have to rely on funding from outside sources, such as government grants, educational institutions, or private companies.
“It’s still an incredibly hard sell,” de Grey claims. “We have very limited resources. We only have about 4 million dollars a year to spend, and so we spent it very judiciously.” That money isn’t going to just the two in-house projects, either. The SENS Research Foundation funds anti-aging research at institutions across the globe and provides grants and internships for students, so raising money to support those endeavors is key to continued success in its fight against aging. The benefits of ending the problem of aging would be tremendous. Not only would we be living longer, we’d be living healthier for longer.
Essential to raising money for anti-aging research is ensuring that those with the funds understands why it’s worth the investment – a not-so-easy task given current misconceptions about aging. In 2015, eight major aging-focused organizations, released a report detailing what they call the many “notable gaps” that exist between expert perspectives on aging and the public’s perception of the process. If the public isn’t well informed on aging, it’s even less knowledgeable about anti-aging. Fifty-eight percent of respondents in a 2013 Pew Research study said they had never even heard of radical life extension before. When asked if they would undergo treatments that would allow them to live to the age of 120 or older, the majority of those surveyed said they would not, and 51 percent thought such treatments would be “bad for society.”
“There is still a huge amount of resistance to the logic that aging is bad for you and that it’s a medical problem that needs to be addressed,” explains de Grey. “It’s really, really extraordinary to me that it’s so hard to get this through to people, but that is the way it is. Aging is not mysterious. We understand it pretty well. It’s not even a phenomenon of biology. It’s more a phenomenon of physics. Any machine with moving parts is going to damage itself … and the result is inevitably going to be that eventually the machine fails. It’s the same for the human body as it is for a car, for example, and if we think about it that way, it becomes pretty easy to actually see what to do about it.”