Can Human Mortality Really Be Hacked?

May 26, 2017

It’s just after 10:30 a.m. on a pleasant weekday morning at SENS, a biotech lab in Mountain View, California. I’ve come to speak to its chief science officer, Aubrey de Grey. I find him sitting in his office, cracking open a bottle of Stone pale ale. “Would you like one?” he offers hospitably. De Grey drinks three or four pints of ale a day, and swears it hasn’t kept him from maintaining the same vigor he felt as a teenager in London.

Now the 54-year-old’s long hair, tied back in a ponytail, is turning gray, a change that would be unremarkable if he weren’t one of the world’s most outspoken proponents of the idea that aging can be completely eradicated. De Grey first gained notoriety in 1999 for his book The Mitochondrial Free Radical Theory of Aging, in which he argued that immortality was theoretically possible. Since then, he’s been promoting his ideas from prominent platforms—the BBC, the pages of Wired, the TED stage. He delivers his message in seemingly unbroken paragraphs, stroking his dark brown wizard’s beard, which reaches below his navel. Unlike most scientists, he isn’t shy about making bold speculations. He believes, for example, that the first person who will live to be 1,000 years old has most likely already been born.

In 2009, de Grey founded the nonprofit SENS, the world’s first organization dedicated to “curing” human aging, not just age-related diseases. The organization, which conducts its own research and funds studies by other scientists, occupies an unassuming space in a small industrial park. Its walls are affixed with large, colorful posters illustrating human anatomy and the inner workings of cells.

The basic vision behind SENS is that aging isn’t an inevitable process by which your body just happens to wear out over time. Rather, it’s the result of specific biological mechanisms that damage molecules or cells. Some elements of this idea date back to 1972, when the biogerontologist Denham Harman noted that free radicals (atoms or molecules with a single unpaired electron) cause chemical reactions, and that these reactions can damage the mitochondria, the powerhouses within cells. Since then, studies have linked free radicals to all sorts of age-related ailments, from heart disease to Alzheimer’s.

De Grey takes this concept further than most scientists are willing to go. His 1999 book argued that there could be a way to obviate mitochondrial damage, slowing the process of aging itself. Now SENS is working to prove this. Its scientists are also studying other potential aging culprits, such as the cross-links that form between proteins and cause problems like arteriosclerosis. They’re looking at damage to chromosomal DNA, and at “junk” materials that accumulate inside and outside cells (such as the plaques found in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients).

The area of research that gives the organization its name has to do with senescent cells. (SENS stands for Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence.) These are cells that stop dividing but accumulate inside us, secreting proteins that contribute to inflammation. It’s widely accepted that inflammation is involved in arthritis, heart disease, cancer, dementia and any number of other conditions that define old age. As de Grey’s thinking goes, if we could figure out how to remove senescent cells using approaches like drugs or gene therapy, along with other types of repair, we could potentially keep our bodies vital forever.

This desire to eradicate aging has, in the last decade, inspired a mini-boom of private investment in Silicon Valley, where a handful of labs have sprung up in SENS’ shadow, funded most notably by tech magnates. The secretive Calico was established by Google, in collaboration with Apple chairman Arthur Levinson, to tackle the problem of aging. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, have invested $3 billion in the attempt to “cure all disease.” Amazon’s Jeff Bezos invested some of his fortune in South San Francisco–based Unity Biotechnology, which has been targeting cell senescence in animal trials and hopes to begin human drug trials next year.

It’s this influx of wealth that has brought novel anti-aging theories out of the scientific fringes and into gleaming Silicon Valley labs. De Grey notes that developing the means to make everyone live forever is not cheap. “This foundation has a budget of somewhere around $4 million a year, not $4 billion, which is what it should be,” de Grey says. He invested $13 million of his own money in SENS, the lion’s share of the $16.5 million he inherited when his mother died. (He says she earned her wealth through property investments.) SENS has also been the beneficiary of PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, perhaps Silicon Valley’s best-known advocate for curing death. As Thiel told the Washington Post in 2015, “I’ve always had this really strong sense that death was a terrible, terrible thing….I prefer to fight it.”

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