De Grey is now one of the most influential and outspoken voices in his fieldSHARE conference

Would you like to live forever? Aubrey de Grey might be able to help you out.

Having publicly declared that the first person to live for more than a millennium is likely alive today, de Grey has dedicated large amounts of energy and time to the pursuit of medical technology which may one day allow humans to live indefinitely.

Now one of the most famous names in gerontology – the science of of ageing and related ills – de Grey’s work focuses on the seemingly outlandish idea of curing death, currently a concept seen only in sci-fi films and fantasy novels like Twilight.

Having graduated from Trinity Hall with a degree in computer science in 1985, de Grey switched fields in his late twenties upon discovering “the horrifying fact that most people, and indeed most biologists, viewed ageing as not very important or interesting.” He appears both astonished and disgusted that the world pays so little attention to ageing, the one malady which affects us all.

De Grey defines ageing as “the collection of types of damage that the body does to itself throughout life as consequences of its normal operation.” For this reason, he argues that there is “no real answer to the question of how ageing harms us”, emphasising that it harms us “by definition”.

His major breakthrough came through the realisation that rather than attempting to delay the damage inflicted by ageing, as was the established practice, gerontologists could do better by repairing this damage after it has occurred. This idea, though “counterintuitive” to many of his colleagues, has now become “totally mainstream” in the field, and forms the basis of the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) Research Foundation which de Grey co-founded in 2009.

Speaking of the work taking place at SENS, and around the world, de Grey proudly declares that there have been “huge advances” in implementing his theory of damage repair. “Among the most high-profile is the ability to remove senescent cells using certain drugs, but there’s a lot more that is more esoteric, such as making backup copies of the mitochondrial DNA in the nucleus and introducing bacterial enzymes to eliminate otherwise indigestible waste products.”

Asked about the biggest barriers currently facing progress, de Grey replies: “Money, money and money.”

Governments will have to provide anti-ageing treatments to get re-elected

He blames the field’s financial struggles on “the desperation that almost all people have to put ageing out of their minds and pretend that it is some kind of blessing in disguise, so that they can get on with their miserably short lives without being preoccupied by the terrible thing that awaits them.”

According to de Grey, this attitude is “psychologically understandable but morally inexcusable”.

Dismissing fears that exclusive anti-ageing therapies could increase inequality – creating a dystopia in which the rich live long prosperous lives while the poor are condemned to early deaths – de Grey claims these treatments “will quite certainly become universally available virtually as soon as they are developed.”

He cites political and economic incentives for ensuring universal access to anti-ageing therapies: “They will be so intensely desired that governments will have to provide them in order to get re-elected”, and they “will pay for themselves so fast that it will be economically suicidal for any government not to do that.”

For Aubrey de Grey, gerontology research is a way of "happily trying to change the world"SENS

Theoretically, in a post-ageing world, the elderly will no longer face the physical challenges which currently inhibit or slow down productivity, and could therefore continue working indefinitely, contributing to the economy rather than draining resources. However, the prospect of a post-retirement world could raise concerns for mental wellbeing, among other human rights issues.

De Grey rejects criticism of his field as “unnatural”, citing this challenge as another “great example of the desperation of so many people to switch off their brains when confronted with the need to discuss the defeat of ageing.”

Towards those who make the “unnatural” claim, de Grey is both indignant and dismissive: “It takes about ten IQ points and ten milliseconds to notice that the whole of technology is “unnatural” – including, of course, the whole of medicine – endeavours that those who voice this objection do not tend to oppose.”

Morally, de Grey does not have any doubts about the quest to extend life: “For something to be an ethical issue it has to be a meaningful dilemma and in order to make that case one must make the case either that people who were born a long time ago have less entitlement to health, as a human right, than younger people, or that health itself is a lesser human right than other things that might end up being mutually exclusive with it, like parenthood.”


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“Once one focuses on the fact that this is just medicine, that any longevity effects would be just side-effects of health, the ‘ethics’ of the matter rather rapidly vaporises.”

Offering advice to aspiring scientists and researchers, de Grey emphasises “on no account should you go into a highly competitive field”, arguing that the “thrill” of competition is “vastly outweighed by the grimness of the perpetual fighting.”

“Didn’t you get into science to make a difference? So, identify backwaters – backwaters that SHOULD be centre stage but aren’t.”

Perhaps inspired by the very advice he offers, De Grey seems never to shy from the eccentric or unpopular. Almost a caricature of the ‘mad scientist’ stereotype, with long unkempt hair and outlandish goals, he has faced criticism on all fronts, including from his scientific peers. In 2005, the MIT Technology Review offered a $20,000 reward to any biologist who could offer an “intellectually serious argument that SENS is so wrong that it is unworthy of learned debate”, seeking answers to the rather common question of whether de Grey is simply “totally nuts”.

For Aubrey de Grey, death is a challenge to be overcome, rather than an inevitable reality. He is alarmed – even angered – by those who simply accept their fate.

Asked whether he has a bucket list, de Grey replies: “Since I don’t intend to die, I don’t need to prioritise.”

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