Spend a moment asking yourself, “What is the world’s worst problem?”
Biomedical gerontologist Aubrey de Grey, Ph.D., has an answer that may be radically different from yours. For him, it’s aging, and he not only makes a convincing case for why this is so, but he’s devoting his life to doing something about it. Dr. de Grey is the founder of SENS, a research foundation that aims to help build the regenerative medicine industry, an industry that arguably has the best chance for curing the diseases of aging. Surprisingly, he’s having more success than the people who were calling him a maverick and a heretic five years ago ever imagined.
Let’s start with why he believes that aging is the world’s worst problem. “When you consider what causes the largest amount of suffering in the world,” he begins, “it’s easy to focus on aging. Ninety percent of health care is for age-related diseases, and ill health causes more suffering than anything else.”
He goes on to talk about how worldwide there are 150,000 deaths each day, and 100,000 of them come from age-related diseases. And of course these statistics don’t take into account the pain and suffering leading up to those deaths.
The Goal Isn’t Delay or Amelioration: It’s Prevention and Cure
Dr. de Grey’s approach to aging is different from the work of gerontologists. His goal isn’t to tweak metabolism or to make lifestyle changes that slow aging and the deteriorating health that accompanies it. Instead, his goal is to apply the principles of regenerative medicine to preventing and reversing age-related ill-health and to do this by repairing the damage of aging at the level where it occurs.
“What I’m talking about,” he says, “is looking, feeling, and functioning as you were in your early adulthood. I don’t mean ‘healthy for your age,’ I mean ‘healthy’ whether you’re in early adulthood or much older.”
In his view, “Many things go wrong with aging bodies, but at the root of them all is the burden of decades of unrepaired damage to our cellular and molecular structures. Over the decades, as each essential microscopic structure fails, tissue function becomes progressively compromised—imperceptibly at first, but ending in the slide into the diseases and disabilities of aging.”
He sees the age-related diseases—such as for example, cardiovascular disease or Alzheimer’s—as sparing young adults simply because they take a long time to develop. “One or more of the age-related diseases will affect everyone who lives long enough,” he states. “They are side effects of the body’s normal operation, as opposed to being caused by infections or other external factors.”
A key tenet of Dr. de Grey’s thinking is that there is no distinction between aging and the diseases of old age. It follows that if aging isn’t just an abstract concept, but instead a collection of diseases, then the consequence is that the diseases of aging can potentially be treated just surely as the diseases that affect younger people can be treated.
In Dr. de Grey’s view, the diseases of aging all come about due to an accumulation of cellular and molecular damage to our tissues, and this damage occurs over time. To deal with these diseases, he wants to encourage a new approach to medicine: regenerative therapies that remove, repair, replace, or render harmless these cellular and molecular changes.
The Seven Classes of Cellular and Molecular Damage in Aging
The universe of therapies needed to accomplish these goals is surprisingly small. “Decades of research in aging people and experimental animals has established that there are no more than seven major classes of such cellular and molecular damage,” he says.
“We can be confident that this list is complete,” he continues, “because scientists have not discovered any new kinds of aging damage in nearly a generation of research. I’ve been challenging people for 10 years to add to this list, and it’s standing the test of time.”
To see how treating age-related diseases could work in practice, he takes the example of Alzheimer’s disease. “A person with Alzheimer’s by definition, has senile plaque, neuron tangles, and nerve cells that die without being replaced. The SENS approach is divide and conquer by addressing each of these separately.”
Since others outside of SENS are working on two of these problems, plaque removal and repairing nerve loss, SENS researchers are focusing on getting rid of tangles. “We’re making progress. Right now we think that the work we’re doing in cardiovascular disease and macular degeneration may lead to an effective way of getting rid of tangles.” Curing Alzheimer’s isn’t going to happen tomorrow, but the researchers at SENS and those outside of SENS with whom they’re working, are making a cure at least thinkable.
Funding Aging Research
The SENS Foundation is a public charity based in California, and its purpose is to fill a niche in the research funding chain. Private sector research, particularly in the drug industry, has funds to drive important research, but only after it’s clear that the odds of success are good, the time frame is reasonably short, and the potential for profit large. At the other end of the research spectrum, public sector research funding is available for basic research that doesn’t have an immediate commercial purpose.
However, in Dr. de Grey’s view, and his colleagues as well, there’s a midway point between the private sector funding and the public sector, and this midpoint is often neglected. Research that may yield incalculable commercial success (and public benefit as well), may be at such an early stage of development that it doesn’t yet attract commercial funders. “We exist to make sure that this kind of intermediate research is not neglected,” he says.
An example of this is the SENS work on cardiovascular disease. “Industry has statins that delay the progression of atherosclerosis, but part of how they work is, they lower levels of the kind of cholesterol that’s good for us, and this means undesirable side effects. Our approach is to deal with the real problem by going after only the kinds of cholesterol that are the originators of atherosclerosis.”
SENS researchers are developing new enzymes not found in the human body. They have already published some proof of concept research, and they expect to publish mouse model studies in the not too distant future. When this happens, private sector funding is likely to be forthcoming. But SENS was needed for the intermediate research. Dr. de Grey wants to see all strands of regenerative medicine make progress, since it will take all of these strands to cure aging.
People no longer refer to Aubrey de Grey as a “maverick” or “heretic.” “These days, I’m more often called ‘controversial,’” he says, sounding pleased with this new characterization.
“Controversial,” after all can be translated as, “might be right.”
Mitzi Perdue, GEN’s corresponding editor, holds degrees from Harvard and George Washington University. She has authored more than 1,600 newspaper and magazine articles on science R&D and clinical medical applications, as well as on food, agriculture, and the environment. Perdue has a strong understanding of complex scientific and mathematical concepts. For 22 years, she was a syndicated columnist for the Scripps Howard News Service and before that, California’s Capitol News. Perdue is also the author of the newsletter from the professional association, Academy of Women’s Health. She has produced and hosted more than 400 interview shows, often in conjunction with scientists at the University of California at Davis. She is a former Commissioner for the U.S. National Commission on Libraries and Information Science and a former Trustee for the National Health Museum.