Life extension and gene therapy has been back in the news recently. Here, the man who wants us to live forever gives us his take on it.
Firstly, if you are not familiar with Aubrey de Grey and his SENS Foundation, you will find an introduction here, and a follow up interview with his colleague Michael Rae here.
Marcus Hondro has reported on the purported new developments in his article Researchers find gene therapy may extend life significantly. That all sounds very exciting to us laymen, but what does a dedicated gerontologist think?
AB: Thanks a lot for taking time out to talk to us, Aubrey. Regarding the recent headline (above), something tells me you are going to say the most important word in that sentence is “may”.
Are you optimistic or otherwise that a therapy that shows a limited success in mice can be adapted for humans?
Aubrey de Grey: There's no generalisation there. Some therapies translate much more easily than others. Sometimes you can get a feel for the translatability from the nature of the mouse experiment, sometimes only when you try to develop the thing for humans. In this case the study is not safe enough to do on humans because it involves high doses of an engineered virus, but that could change. The other issue is that the particular gene involved, telomerase, plays a very different role in humans - it allows cancers to grow, and most cells have it turned off as an anti-cancer therapy. There are a lot more experiments to do here, but that doesn't detract - this is definitely a very exciting result.
AB: I notice that you say stem cell research is not a priority for SENS. Is this purely because of duplication?
AdG: Yes. Stem cell therapy is a key part of SENS, but not for the SENS Foundation because it's much better funded by other sources than is the rest of SENS.
AB: I've watched your video Stimulators Of Telomerase, and it shows how far you have to go. When do you think you will be able at least to answer the question would lengthening our telemeres lengthen our lives? And would this be both practicable and safe? I mean beyond the TA-65 study.
AdG: This is one of the hardest questions to answer, mostly because of the above caveat about cancer. TA Sciences and Bill Andrews are monitoring their patients very closely for cancer incidence.
AB: How do you think the Oxford event went?
AdG: Pretty well. It was depressing that Blakemore managed to get a lot of support despite being so blatantly unscientific, but that's life.
AB: Finally, I see you are calling for SENS volunteers. Is this just for academics or are you looking for people to undertake experiments? Are you looking for particular types of people, very elderly, or those with some other qualification?
AdG: If by “undertake experiments” you mean submit to treatments, then no, we're not looking for that.
AB: What does volunteering for SENS entail?
AdG: Lots of things - advocacy, lab work, you name it. Think of something you think you could contribute and describe it on our web "contact us" form.
AB: Aubrey de Grey, thank you very much.
Having watched the Oxford debate, it is clear that Blackmore has done his homework on Aubrey; it is also clear that his response was extremely uncharitable. Aubrey has undoubtedly talked up the prospects of conquering ageing, this was just as undoubtedly necessary to secure the sort of funding his organisation needs, but his attack on Aubrey is what one would expect from a politician on another politician whom he believed was pursuing policies that would ruin the economy. Heck, you'd think Aubrey was a serial killer the way this guy lays into him. In essence, Aubrey is saying we should intensify research into ways to stay young and healthy. Every day in this country and worldwide people exercise, eat special foods, fast, take dietary supplements and medicines...with the express goal of maintaining optimum health and living longer. If Aubrey's research is a bad thing, then surely so is all this.
Furthermore, whether or not we reach Aubrey's escape velocity in the next ten years, the next hundred years, or never, it is a goal worth attempting to reach, because we don't know what other benefits we may find on the way. Although we haven't walked on the Moon for nearly four decades, the space race resulted in massive technological spin offs that have benefited us in numerable other ways.
By the same token, we have absolutely nothing to lose by attempting to learn more and understand the process of ageing, and it is frankly odd as Blackmore appears to be suggesting, to concentrate on curing diseases when with sufficient application we might be able to prevent them in the first place. Can it really be better and more efficacious to develop and use expensive drugs to combat cholera and typhoid when it is so much more efficacious to drain a swamp, fill in stagnant pools, and provide clean drinking water for a village, or for an entire nation?