A British researcher challenges how we look at aging

A British researcher is challenging how we look at death and aging. Researcher Aubrey de Grey argues that aging is a curable disease if scientists approach it as an engineering challenge. Up next reporter Andrea Vasquez talks to de Grey via Google hangout.


A British researcher is challenging how we look at death and aging.

Researcher Aubrey de Grey argues that aging is a curable disease if scientists approach it as an engineering challenge.

Up next, reporter Andrea Vasquez talks to de Grey via Google Hangout.

Aubrey de Grey, thanks very much for being with us.

My pleasure.

So, let's start with biomedical gerontology.

I know 'biomedical.'

I know 'gerontology.'

What is that when you put them together?

Well, really, it's simply a research field in which we try to develop new medicines that will be able to extend healthy life and postpone the ill health of old age as far as possible, more so than we can do today.

So, you're looking at aging essentially as a disease that you're trying to cure or slow?

Well, it's a bit dangerous to call it a disease, and it's also a bit dangerous to use the word 'cure.'

So, really, I would say it's a medical condition, certainly.

It's something that's amenable to medical intervention.

But it can't really be cured because it's a side effect of being alive, a side effect of the body's normal operation.

So, it can never be eliminated from the body.

What we can do instead is essentially preventative maintenance.

We can go in and eliminate the damage that the body does to itself as a side effect of its normal operation.

And if we can do that reasonably comprehensively, periodically, then we will keep the overall level of damage down to a level that the body is set up to tolerate.

So, you're talking about the wear and tear of going through life, as opposed to just the degradation of our cells?

Well, kind of both.

I mean, the main reason why we get sick when we get old is because a lot of the essential, fundamental things that the body has to do to keep us alive create damage as an inevitable side effect.

Breathing is probably the most significant example.

Breathing is really bad for you.

It creates free radicals, and free radicals damage DNA and so on.

So, breathing is an enormous component of why we age.

But it's rather nonnegotiable.


[ Laughs ] So, what are some of the other things that we're doing by necessity that are actually damaging our bodies?

Well, just eating isn't exactly good for you.

For example, a lot of the damage that happens, including, for example, the stiffening of our blood vessels that causes hypertension in the elderly is driven by the reaction of sugars with the proteins that make up our body.

And, again, sugar is something that we require.

It's an essential nutrient.


So, you have said that the first people who could live to be 1,000 have already been born.

Does that mean that we would have had to already start some sort of regimen, or what are you suggesting in terms of how consistently you need to be maintaining that treatment?

I think that's true because I think within the next 20 or so years, we have a very good chance of developing this comprehensive preventative maintenance that I was talking about to a decisive level of comprehensiveness.

It doesn't need to be 100% comprehensive in order to do this job.

So, that will apply to people who are already in middle age at the time that those therapies are developed, which means, obviously, people who are alive today.

So, you'll be -- in slowing down the aging process, will all the facilities also be slowed down?

Because then there's a question of quality of life.

I don't need to be 1,000 if nothing's working anymore.


So, absolutely not.

The real misconception in your question is the idea that this is anything to do with slowing down a process.

It's not.

This is to do with repairing the damage that results from the process.

So, aging itself, the process of breathing, creating free radicals that do damage, that will still happen in a completely unaffected way.

It will be happening at the normal rates.

But we then step in, intercede at the next step.

We eliminate that damage by a variety of different therapies, and that means that the damage never reaches a level of abundance that is outside the tolerance and below of the human body.

So, we're not really slowing anything down.

Okay, we're just keeping everything moving efficiently so that it can last longer.


So, what are these therapies?

What kinds of things do they entail?

Well, there's quite a variety.

So, one that everyone's familiar with already is stem-cell therapy.

Stem-cell therapy is the way to repair one particular type of damage, namely cell loss.

When cells die, and they're not automatically replaced by division of other cells, then we can use stem cells, put them into the body, and those stem cells will be preprogrammed in the laboratory to divide and transform into replacements for the cells that the body is not replacing.

Another example would be the elimination of waste products.

There are certain waste products that slowly but surely accumulate inside cells -- different waste products in different cell types.

And those things are responsible eventually for diseases like atherosclerosis and macular degeneration.

If we can eliminate those waste products by introducing new enzymes that have the capacity to eliminate them, to break them down, then we just won't get those diseases.

Is there the possibility or any interest in eventually applying this to nonhumans, to animals or plants?

There's certainly no reason why we should not be able to apply them to other animals, though it must be remembered that an animal that lives less long than we do, the reason it lives less long is because, if you like, there are more gaps in its in-built damage-repair machinery than there are in ours, which means that it's inherently more difficult to eliminate aging, basically to fill the gaps, to eliminate all of the types of damage in a short-lived mammal, like a cat, for example, than it would be in a human being.

If we go further, if we go to, like, plants, then the whole concept of aging is very differently defined in the first place.

So, let's not go there.

[ Laughs ] That's fair.

And is your motivation and also the motivation for a lot of the people who work at the SENS Foundation and other people who are working toward this, is it about a desire to prolong life or curiosity to see how far we can push these limits?

It's really neither of those things.

It's a much more prosaic and uncontroversial thing.

Namely, we don't like to see people getting sick.

We are doing standard medical research.

It's just medical research.

And, of course, the point is that we'll have a side effect of having people live a lot longer as a result, because let's face it.

Most people die of being sick.

And therefore if we can stop people getting sick, there will be that side effect.

But we work on stopping people from getting sick, and we're not really focused on longevity, per se, as a goal.


Aubrey de Grey, thanks very much for being with us.

My pleasure.

Thanks for having me.