In this inspiring episode of Impetus Digital‘s Fireside Chat, I got the chance to talk with the one-and-only Aubrey de Grey, Chief Science Officer at SENS Research Foundation. Among many other things, we explored the concept of using biomedical technology and regenerative medicine to postpone aging-derived debilitation and death. We dived into many questions surrounding this topic, including the benefits of reversing aging/age-related disease vs. slowing it down and the potential ethical or medical concerns around extending life beyond what is “natural.”
Here is a preview of the start of our thought-provoking conversation:
Q: Tell us a little bit about the trajectory that got you through your professional journey and got you interested in regenerative medicine?
A: It is quite an unusual journey, actually. I did not even start as a biologist. I originally started as a computer scientist. That was because when I was a teenager, I started programming and found out I was good with it. I wanted to work on problems with humanity, of which I felt one big problem was the problem of work. The fact that people have to spend so much of their time doing stuff that they would not do unless they were being paid for it.
I thought “we need more automation,” and that is what artificial intelligence is designed to be for. “I will work in artificial intelligence research.” I did that. Then, I did my first undergrad degree in Computer Science, also at Cambridge, and I worked for several years in AI research. But, during that time, I met and married a biologist, someone who was a lot older than me actually. She was already a full professor at the University of California, San Diego. She was in the UK, where I was then on Sabbatical. Through her, I thought to learn about biology first, but, also, I gradually began to realize that I had been the victim of a really tragic misconception for all of my life. Namely, I had assumed that biologists were working on aging. It had always been obvious to me that aging was the number one problem of humanity, even bigger than the problem of work. Yet, we didn’t hear any progress, but I believed that everyone else thought the same way; therefore, people would be trying their best.
I had discovered with my ex-wife and through all the other biologists I was meeting that aging was actually not considered very interesting and not very important. It took me a couple more years to really come to terms with that. Eventually, I decided I had got no choice; I had to switch fields…
Q: Can we spend a few minutes redefining what aging actually is? How have you taken this very holistic concept and broken it down into something that we never really considered before?
A: Yeah, in fact, I would actually go a little further, I would say it’s not really a matter of redefining it, it’s a matter of defining it at all. I think the only reason that people are able to adopt such ridiculously irrational points of view about aging is because they don’t have a definition of aging to start with, not a coherent one. Different people have different incoherent definitions in their heads. So, for example, people think of aging as this thing that’s kind of woven into the fabric of the universe in such a way that it’s kind of off-limits to medicine. But they don’t think of the so-called diseases of aging that way. They don’t think about Alzheimer’s in that way, or cancer, or atherosclerosis, and so on.
So we have to ask ourselves, is there actually any real biological basis to that distinction? And the answer is no, there isn’t. There’s absolutely none. The difference between the so-called diseases of aging and aging itself is pure semantics. There are some aspects of aging that we have chosen to give names to and others that we haven’t, and I believe that the only reason we cling to this completely unjustified Chinese wall between these two things is because the diseases of aging as we call them–the more kind of tangible, binary aspects of aging that we can say either someone has them or they don’t– for those aspects, it’s impossible to say “oh, these are inevitable and they’re woven into the universe,” because some people get them and some people don’t.
Whereas, people like to think of the thing called aging itself as more universal. But really all it is, is that they happen at a less variable age. Everyone actually will get cancer if they live long enough without getting anything else. And the same goes for Alzheimer’s, so that’s part of it. And it’s psychological, because people, somehow, they need to make that peace with aging in order to get on with their miserably short lives and, you know, make the best of it without being preoccupied by this terrible thing. And by kind of carving off bits of aging and calling them diseases, putting them up with the thing that people hate and they do want to cure, makes it easier to make peace with the rest of it.
For more of our discussion, you can watch the whole Fireside Chat with Aubrey de Grey, or listen to the podcast version, below.
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