We recently caught up with Dr. Aubrey de Grey and talked to him about the upcoming Dublin Longevity Summit and how things are looking on the advocacy landscape.
Hi Aubrey, great to see that you are the co-organizer and a keynote speaker at the Longevity Summit Dublin 2022, an all-new conference happening on September 18th – 20th in the capital city of Ireland. Tell us a bit about the conference and its goals?
The return of face-to-face conferences means a great deal to me, because ever since my first one in 2003, I have found that they are the absolute most effective way to (a) bring capable newcomers into the field and (b) connect established people in synergistic ways.
The COVID-driven demise of the Berlin Undoing Aging series, which had been a revival of the Cambridge series, was a tragedy that I am delighted to be consigning to history.
In the same vein, I inspired and funded the recent LessDeath event in Nevada City, organized by one of my earliest proteges, Mark Hamalainen, which attracted numerous highly valuable new recruits to the movement and will definitely be repeated.
Ireland is an interesting choice for a conference, how does the country fit into progress in our field?
It’s a great choice and not only for its reputation for knowing how to party, which I’ve always viewed as a key component of why face-to-face meetings are so valuable. It has a vibrant biomedical community, it benefits from its status as an EU member that is smaller than the usual suspects, and, of course, it boasts a group of full-fledged longevity crusaders who are perfectly placed to spearhead its elevation to being a big player in this space.
Long ago, the challenge was to convince academia that doing something about aging was plausible, and it was a tough slog to achieve that. However, it seems that a lot of researchers are now convinced that the idea has merit, so what is holding back progress the most now in your view?
From where I have sat, it’s been a bit more complicated than that. There has historically been a huge gulf between what academic biogerontologists think and what they say, which emerged in the late 1960s as the political correctness leading to the creation of the National Institute on Aging.
In private, pretty much all biogerontologists have always taken the view that aging is bad for you and that medicine can potentially ameliorate it. What’s happened in the past decade is that biogerontologists have been able to come somewhat out of the closet on this.
To come to your question of what is holding back progress: what remains is researchers’ terror of overpromising and underdelivering. Researchers feel, reasonably, the need to distance themselves from the snake-oil salespeople who defined the “anti-aging industry” in the past – but I maintain that most researchers are still fixating too much on that need, to the detriment of what they could be doing to hasten the development and dissemination of things that really work.
It seems there is more money coming into the field these days; how is the funding situation in your view now, and what milestone moments contributed towards this?
The funding situation is totally unrecognizable relative to even a few years ago. The influx of private-sector funding, initiated by Laura Deming and given momentum by Michael Greve, Jim Mellon, and other courageous early-stage investors, is now clearly and inexorably self-sustaining.
The thing it necessarily lacked, though, was attention to the hardest, most pre-investable components of the damage repair portfolio, which can only be addressed by those who are truly thinking not commercially but philanthropically – and that changed beyond recognition starting only about 18 months ago, with the arrival of a number of very wealthy people from the crypto community, most notably James Fickel.
James was certainly not the first crypto big-hitter to support this work – that accolade goes unequivocally to Vitalik Buterin, who started donating serious money to SENS quite a few years ago – but after seeing me speak in 2019 and reading my book in 2020, James took it to a whole new level, both with his own money and by bringing a number of his even bigger-hitting friends on board. The result has been transformational. Of course, then there was the fantastic Pulse airdrop orchestrated by Richard Heart, which brought more than 27 million dollars to SENS.
How has public perception and support for the field changed (if it has) in recent years?
That’s still a very mixed bag, there’s no denying. The funding I just talked about comes from the public, whether it be investors or donors, so there’s definitely more than zero progress, but, on the other hand, there is precious little reduction in the number of people – even very well-known and otherwise admirable people – who exhibit what I long ago termed the pro-aging trance, clinging to nonsensical views such as that death gives meaning to life or that population turnover is necessary to avoid societal ossification.
What can the community do now to help increase the pace of progress?
In that regard, I think it’s best not to think in terms of a monolithic “community”. The persistence of a widespread pro-aging trance tells us that advocacy remains paramount, even though the goal of that advocacy may be less central in bringing more funding to the field and more in bringing new talent, especially in the form of bench scientists and entrepreneurs (which is what LessDeath was all about making happen).
Advocacy is all about matching the advocate to the audience. It’s hugely important that there are now so many diverse voices within the community saying more or less the same thing but in different words, rather than just one guy with an unintelligible accent and a monstrous beard. Plenty of things are now happening, both publicly and behind the scenes, to expand that further, not least among elected representatives who wouldn’t listen to me to save their lives.