“If I can bring forward the defeat of aging even one day, I would have saved the lives of 110,000 people.” – Dr. Aubrey de Grey at EmTech Asia 2019
The age-old quest for immortality was largely confined to the myths and legends of past civilizations until about just two decades back when telomerase, the active component for the gene that confers immortality to cells was successfully isolated in a science laboratory. That turned the tide on the entire conversation from whether aging could be treated, to how it could be treated.
Since then it has spawned a whole new medical field – ‘healthspan’ – where scientific research is conducted with the aim of extending healthy human lives for as long as hundreds and thousands of years, if not outright immortality. It is not surprising that the intensive research into anti-aging technologies has attracted financial backing from those who are interested in technological progress – the tech community, the likes of Google and even cryptocurrency tycoons such as Ethereum Founder, Vitalik Buterin, who donated $2.4 million worth of ether to the nonprofit foundation SENS Research Foundation, of which Dr Aubrey de Grey is the Chief Science Officer.
At EmTech Asia 2019 Dr Aubrey shared some key insights on the thought leadership and technologies surrounding this exciting field.
Comparing the human body to a machine, like a car or an aeroplane, Aubrey points out that any machine with moving parts will damage itself and over time that damage accumulates. Similarly, the human body is set up to tolerate a certain amount of damage without a significant decline in function until middle age or older when the amount of damage exceeds its tolerance level and that is when we go downhill mentally and physically. The most practical and promising way to keep people healthy as they get older is to repair that damage periodically to keep it below the threshold of irreparable damage. Citing the example of vintage cars more than 100 years old that are working just as well as when they were first built, Aubrey asserts this is so not because they were designed that way – they were supposed to last tens of years not more – but they lasted because of comprehensive preventative maintenance which is damage repair.
Looking Good is the Easy Part
As we age, cosmetics increasingly does not work as well because the inside is getting worse and worse and all cosmetics does is patch up the outside. Conversely, if the inside is not getting worse then maintaining the outside is actually the easy part. Health dictates look, feel and function, not vice-versa.
The ‘Maintenance’ Approach
If it makes sense to liken the body to a machine that accumulates damage then the approach we need to take is to first identify all of those types of damage and then develop the respective technologies to repair each of them. The paradigm at the core of SENS is that the cellular and molecular damage underlying age-related pathologies can be repaired through regenerative therapies, effectively restoring the body to a state of youthful health.
While identifying the different types of damage has already been done and since the last 30 years, there has not been new types of damage identified, developing those technologies to counter the damage have proved more challenging and those technologies and therapies being developed only “nearly exist” in Aubrey’s own words. Therapies include introducing new genes found in bacteria to white blood cells with the challenge being to adapt these genes to human cells, which hopefully will be going to clinical trials in a couple of years.
There are now whole companies in the industry pursuing each of the concepts that SENS pioneered years ago and much more money is now able to be brought into this field, with investors coming in as opposed to just donors. As recent as several years ago this was still just an idea, a movement, a community. Now it is an actual industry – the business of prolonging lives which is also a lucrative field. While still clearly an emerging industry, according to Zion Market Research, the overall anti-aging market worth, valued at 140.3 Billion in 2015, will hit USD 216.52 Billion in 2021due to intense competition among major industry players in the market.
SENS Research Foundation’s Research Center in Mountain View, California
Education is Key
Ask any man on the street what age he thinks he will live up to and the answers invariably span from sixty to ninety. Aubrey predicts that five to ten years down the line, we will get completely different answers that would go up to the hundreds and even the thousands. Convinced that these coming therapies will be accessible to everyone because they will pay for themselves, Aubrey points out that aging is incredibly expensive to society and the problem is not that people are old, the problem is that old people are sick and cannot work. In this new scenario, there will then be far more old people but there will be no sick people. Healthy old people will have no problems contributing wealth to society – a situation that is beneficial and profitable to the government and the nation, which he estimates happening in 15-20 years’ time.
In the meantime there is a huge amount of education for society and a huge amount of growth that needs to happen. While the United States, in particular California, is leading this charge currently, Aubrey believes that with the right attitudes to technology, competition and aging (that it is a serious problem that must be paid attention to), Asia, in particular Singapore, has the opportunity to overtake the US in the next five to ten years. As long as people can grasp that the nature of this problem is solvable, people today can make a difference as to how it is going to be solved.
“The thing that gets me out of bed in the morning is that every single day, 110,000 people die. A total of about 160,000 people die total in the world each day. More than two-thirds of the deaths are due to aging. That’s a lot of people! So if I can bring forward the defeat of aging even one day, I would have saved the lives of 110,000 people. That’s a big deal. I want everybody to be thinking that way.”