It’s an exciting time to be working in ageing research. New findings are coming thick and fast, and although eliminating the process in humans is still some way away, studies regularly confirm what some have suspected for decades: that the mechanisms of ageing can be treated.
“It’s an amazingly gratifying field to be part of,” says biomedical gerontologist Aubrey de Grey, chief science officer and founder of SENS Research Foundation, the leading organisation tackling ageing. “It moves on almost every week at the moment.”
At the start of February, for example, a study was published that had hugely significant findings for the field.
“There was a big announcement in Nature showing that if you eliminate a certain type of cell from mice, then they live quite a bit longer,” says de Grey. “Even if you do that elimination rather late; in other words when they’re already in middle age.”
For those following the field, this was exciting news, but for de Grey, it was concrete proof that ageing can be combated.
“That’s the kind of thing that I’ve been promoting for a long time, and it’s been coming but it’s been pretty tricky to actually demonstrate directly. This was really completely unequivocal proof of concept,” he says. “So of course it motivates lots of work to identify ways to do the same thing in human beings. These kinds of things are happening all the time now.”
Funding for ageing research is forever in short supply. SENS is always asking for donations, and there is always more research to be done than there is money to fund it.
“We do our best with the very limited funding we have, obviously, and some of our work is done in-house: we have our own laboratory in Mountain View, California, where we do two of our major projects, but most of our work is done in university laboratories, mostly in the US, but there’s also one group outside Cambridge [UK] at the Babraham Institute,” de Grey says.
“We’ve got certainly quite a long list of researchers that we feel have the potential to do extremely valuable work, and it’s a great source of frustration to us that we can’t fund them all.”
However, this is starting to improve, both for SENS and for other institutions engaging in this field of research.
In particular, the investment community has shown growing interest in ageing research. February’s breakthrough findings were funded by private investors, and SENS, too, is spinning out some of its research into companies.
“Over the past year we’ve actually spun out a few companies, a few startups that have been able to attract investment from people who prefer to invest rather than donate,” he says.
Changing perceptions of ageing
The growing involvement of private investors is, according to de Grey, evidence of the changing perceptions of ageing research.
The idea of reversing ageing… has also become much more mainstream
“Not only is the science moving forward, but the appreciation of the science within the investor community is also moving forward,” he says. “And that is absolutely critical to what we can expect to see in the future.”
For de Grey, there are two drivers of this growing appreciation.
“Number one is that the general idea that ageing [in] mice in the foreseeable future be brought under a fair degree of medical control; that has become much more mainstream,” he says.
“The second thing is that within that kind of concept, the specific idea of reversing ageing by repairing the damage that accumulates throughout life, which is of course the focus of my work, that itself has also become much more mainstream, much more accepted as a realistic option.”
Pace of progression
Throughout his career, de Grey has been asked to make predictions as to when ageing research will mature to the extent where it can be used to significantly extend human lives. And so far, the answers he has given have not been fully matched by reality.
I think that I can still stick to the kinds of timeframes that I was saying in the past
“If I look back at the kinds of predictions of timeframes that I’ve given in the past, it doesn’t look too good at first, because in the ten years that I’ve been making predictions, I would say that my predictions have only gone down by about three years,” he says.
However, there is a significant reason for this: money. And with growing investment and support, this is a problem that is starting to diminish.
“My predictions were always contingent on the availability of adequate funding, which certainly has not been forthcoming,” de Grey says. “And of course what we’re talking about here is that that is changing. It’s becoming more adequate every day, which means that we’re likely to be starting to catch up.”
As a result, de Grey is able to stick to previous claims about how long we’ll have to wait for ageing to be eliminated, instead of pushing the endgame further and further into the future.
“I think that I can still stick to the kinds of timeframes that I was saying in the past, which are basically that we’ve got maybe 20-25 years to wait before we really get all of this in place, even the really most difficult parts of it, to a point where we can really talk about having comprehensive medical control of ageing in humans,” he says.
“Of course even then it’s only a 50/50 guess; there’s at least a 10% chance that we’ll hit a whole bunch of problems that we don’t know about yet, and we won’t get there for 100 years. But a 50% chance is quite enough to be worth fighting for, so that’s not a problem.”
While there is a chance unforeseen issues could dramatically delay the research, there is also the possibility that a breakthrough could rapidly advance it, in the same way that induced pluripotent stem cells or the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing system have done for other fields of biology.
“I’m hoping that we will make serendipitous discoveries that allow things to be done more easily,” he said. “This is the kind of thing that does happen in biology, after all.”