«In only a few decades we will be able to postpone the diseases and debilitation of aging indefinitely»
Dr. Aubrey de Grey, Chairman and Chief Science Officer of the Methuselah Foundation, on seeking a cure against aging, the role of genetics and the human metabolism
Dr. de Grey, you're Chairman and Chief Science Officer of the Methuselah Foundation. What is the work of your foundation?
The MF is dedicated to repairing the damage of aging and thereby preventing the diseases and debilitation that damage eventually causes.
Which discovery led to your concept that aging is a disease that can be cured?
Let me rephrase your question a little. I don't really say that aging is a disease – that's a question of terminology, so I don't care about the answer. Rather, I say that aging is amenable to medical intervention. And that's not a concept that I invented: everyone who studies the biology of aging knows that. The only thing I've done that is new is to propose a particular way in which aging can be combated – a way that I think will be achievable in only a few decades and will postpone the diseases and debilitation of aging indefinitely.
Which factors are responsible for aging?
Being alive! The whole of our metabolism – all the molecular and cellular processes that keep us going for as long as we do – is a massively interlinked network, which has a bunch of accumulating side-effects. The best physical definition of aging is, it's that collection of side-effects. So, the factors that are responsible for aging are the processes that create the side-effects, namely our metabolism.
So far most of the seven ills that lead to aging have no cure. When do you believe that the problems will be resolved?
I think we have a very good chance of solving them all, at least partially, in mice, within ten years. I think we have maybe a 50% chance of solving them all, at least partially, in humans within 25-30 years.
Does the key to postponing aging lie in genetics?
Not really, no. Genetic studies of aging tend to tell us about why some species (or individuals) live longer than others, and in what circumstances – but those studies usually don't tell us much about how to use that comparative information to design practical therapies.
What role will nanotechnology and robotics play and at what stage will they feed into the fight?
My personal opinion is that «non-biological» treatments for biological problems, including specific diseases and also including aging, will be increasingly important as time goes on, but they won't be the main part of the solution to aging for quite a long time. Therefore, I think the decisive breakthroughs will be made using normal biotechnology. But I' not sure – maybe nanotech and so on will progress faster than I expect, or biotech will progress more slowly – so I'm very happy that there are people out there working really hard on non-biological solutions.
By 2030 the economic gap between industrial and developing countries will probably be non-existent, but the demographics may still differ. What are the chances that there will be an old and a young world?
I am afraid that there will probably still be developing countries, especially in Africa – but the biggest countries, China and India, will probably be adequately developed. But there will still be an old and young world for a while, simply because the different rates of death at early ages will take a long time to work their way through the population.
Bioethicists like Sherwin Nuland regard your project as irresponsible. Can you relate to their point of view?
Not at all. I find it absolutely shocking and appalling that medical professionals, such as Nuland, can have so little respect for the rights of the elderly that they want the elderly to die. However, I do understand their point of view psychologically – I know why they have so thoroughly abandoned all their normal ethical and moral judgement. It's because they can't cope emotionally with how ghastly aging is, other than by kidding themselves that it isn't ghastly at all.
What can we expect to hear from you at the European Futurists Conference Lucerne?
Well, after this interview I know what questions you're interested in, so I'll probably talk about a variety of related topics.
Dr. Aubrey de Grey is a biomedical gerontologist and is the Chairman and Chief Science Officer of the Methuselah Foundation, a non-profit charity dedicated to combating the aging process. He is also Editor-in-Chief of Rejuvenation Research, the world’s only peer-reviewed journal focused on intervention in aging.
Dr. Aubrey de Grey
Dinner Session «A True Cure for Human Aging»,
Hotel Schweizerhof, Lucerne, Switzerland
October 27, 2008; 19.30 h