Aubrey de Grey: Ageing research “moves on almost every week”

Aubrey de Grey believes we can cure ageing. Here the chief science officer of SENS Research Foundation discusses how close we are to comprehensive medical control of human ageing

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.”

Growing funding

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.

Images courtesy of SHARE Conference flickr creativecommons

Images courtesy of SHARE Conference / Flickr creative commons

“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.”

ftr_1603_endWhile 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.”

Wanted man captured thanks to facial recognition

A Chinese man who was wanted by police for “economic crimes” – which can include anything from tax evasion to the theft of public property – was arrested at a music concert in China after facial recognition technology spotted him inside the venue.

Source: Abacus News

SpaceX president commits to city-to-city rocket travel

SpaceX president and chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell has reiterated the company’s plans to make city-to-city travel — on Earth — using a rocket that’s designed for outer space a reality. Shotwell says the tech will be operational “within a decade, for sure.”

Source: Recode

Businessman wins battle with Google over 'right to be forgotten'

A businessman fighting for the "right to be forgotten" has won a UK High Court action against Google.. The businessman served six months’ in prison for “conspiracy to carry out surveillance”, and the judge agreed to an “appropriate delisting order".

Source: Press Gazette

UK launched cyber attack on Islamic State

The UK has conducted a "major offensive cyber campaign" against the Islamic State group, the director of the intelligence agency GCHQ, Jeremy Fleming, has revealed. The operation hindered the group's ability to co-ordinate attacks and suppressed its propaganda.

Source: BBC

Goldman Sachs consider whether curing patients is bad for business

Goldman Sachs analysts have attempted to tackle the question of whether pioneering "gene therapy" treatment will be bad for business in the long run. "Is curing patients a sustainable business model?" analysts ask in a report entitled "The Genome Revolution."

Source: CNBC

Four-armed robot performing surgery in the UK

A £1.5m "robotic" surgeon, controlled using a computer console, is being used to shorten the time patients spend recovering after operations. The da Vinci Xi machine is the only one in the country being used for upper gastrointestinal surgery.

Source: BBC

Virgin Galactic rocket planes go past the speed of sound

Virgin Galactic completed its first powered flight in nearly four years when Richard Branson's space company launched its Unity spacecraft, which reached supersonic speeds before safely landing. “We’ve been working towards this moment for a long time,” Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said in an email to Quartz.

Source: Quartz

Google employees protest being in "the business of war"

Thousands of Google employees, including dozens of senior engineers, have signed a letter protesting the company’s involvement in a Pentagon program that uses AI to interpret video imagery and could be used to improve the targeting of drone strikes. The letter, which is circulating inside Google, has garnered more than 3,100 signatures

Source: New York Times

Computer system transcribes words users “speak silently”

MIT researchers have developed a computer interface that transcribes words that the user verbalises internally but does not actually speak aloud. The wearable device picks up neuromuscular signals in the jaw and face that are triggered by internal verbalisations — saying words “in your head” — but are undetectable to the human eye.

Source: MIT News

Drones could be used to penalise bad farming

A report by a coalition of environmental campaigners is arguing squadrons of drones should be deployed to locate and penalise farmers who let soil run off their fields. Their report says drones can help to spot bad farming, which is said to cost more than £1.2bn a year by clogging rivers and contributing to floods.

Source: BBC

Californian company unveil space hotel

Orion Span, a California company, has unveiled its Aurora Station, a commercial space station that would house a luxury hotel. The idea is to put the craft in low-earth orbit, about 200 miles up, with a stay at the hotel likely to cost $9.5 million for a 12-day trip, but you can reserve a spot now with an $80,000 deposit.

UK mobile operators pay close to £1.4bn for 5G

An auction of frequencies for the next generation of mobile phone networks has raised £1.36bn, says regulator Ofcom. Vodafone, EE, O2 and Three all won the bandwidth needed for the future 5G mobile internet services, which are not expected to be launched until 2020.

Source: BBC