Can Aging Be Cured?

May 22, 2015
Originally published on May 11, 2018 9:52 am

Part 2 of the TED Radio Hour episode The Fountain Of Youth

About Aubrey de Grey's TED Talk

Cambridge researcher Aubrey de Grey argues that aging is merely a disease — and a curable one at that.

About Aubrey de Grey

Aubrey de Grey is the chief science officer and co-founder of the SENS Research Foundation. He argues that aging can be "cured" if it's approached as an "engineering problem." His plan calls for identifying the components that cause human tissue to age, and designing remedies for each— forestalling disease and prolonging healthy life.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, The Fountain Of Youth - the science and the ideas behind the quest to keep us living long and youthful lives. And we just heard from Dan Buettner. He's an explorer and a researcher who studies Blue Zones. These are the areas of the world where people live much longer than anywhere in the...

AUBREY DE GREY: Well, let me stop you right there. How much? How much? It's very important to look at the numbers here.

RAZ: Aubrey de Grey would argue the handful of extra years you can get from, say, a Blue-Zone lifestyle is really pretty minor.

DE GREY: People often laugh at the U.S.A. on this kind of thing because the U.S.A. spends far more money per capita on healthcare than any other country in the world.

RAZ: Right.

DE GREY: And yet, if you look at the league table of life expectancy, it comes down in the 40s somewhere - like, 45 or whatever. But then if you look at the actual absolute numbers, the difference in lifespan between the U.S.A. and the number-one country, Japan, guess what it is? Just guess. Go on.

RAZ: I don't know - four years, five years.

DE GREY: Indeed, only four years. So you know - and these Blue Zones, you know, they might get another couple of years, but you know, the numbers are so small that we've got to do something that nobody has today.

RAZ: Aubrey is an Evangelist, probably one of the loudest voices for what might be described as the anti-aging movement. He's one of the leaders of a group called the SENS Foundation. It funds research into what he calls rejuvenation biotechnologies.

DE GREY: Which means new medicines that don't yet exist that will be able to repair the various types of molecular and cellular damage that the body does to itself throughout life and that eventually contribute to the ill health of old age.

RAZ: Aubrey basically looks at the human body in the same way he sees any other machine. You keep it oiled. You replace parts. You do preventative maintenance, and the machine can keep going a lot longer than it was ever meant to. So instead of just focusing on, say, a cure for cancer, he wants researchers to channel their energy into finding ways to prevent cancer and other diseases from ever developing in the human body in the first place. And he thinks if we could do that...

DE GREY: Basically, the types of things you could die of at the age of a hundred or 200 would be exactly the same as the types of things that you might die of at the age of 20 or 30.

RAZ: An accident, for example.

DE GREY: Exactly.

RAZ: Aubrey de Grey is a Cambridge-educated biologist. And we should just say at the outset that he does have a fair number of critics in the scientific community, many of whom say the science he's pushing is a little out there. But the idea behind that science is worth considering. It's the idea that we should see aging less as a fact of life and more like a chronic disease, one that we could do a lot more to manage.

DE GREY: I mean, I'm not saying that it's not good to live a good lifestyle and to maximize what we can do today. Of course it's good, but it's really only a tiny increase that one can get.

RAZ: Here's more from Aubrey de Grey speaking on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

DE GREY: Please raise your hand if you want to get Alzheimer's disease. Please raise your hand if you think there is some age at which you will want to get Alzheimer's disease. Pretty much nobody wants to get sick, however long ago they happen to have been born. And therefore, it's really pretty bizarre that we don't put more effort into stopping people from getting sick, into trying to figure out how, medically, to alleviate the risk of getting sick as we get older.

But that's how things are. And yet, what we have here now is - since we've pretty much got rid of the infectious diseases as a cause of death in the industrialized world, about 90 percent of all medical care and all death is caused by the diseases of old age. These are universal, these diseases. Some people think, well, some people get Alzheimer's; some people get tuberculosis. It's all much the same thing. Nonsense - everybody gets Alzheimer's if they don't get anything else. It's not something that you can just avoid by being careful.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Alzheimer's, dementia, cancer - these diseases occur because as you age, your body gets damaged. Molecules get damaged. Cells mutate. Junk accumulates in your body. All of this is natural. It happens to everyone. And Aubrey believes that that damage can be grouped into seven different categories, all of which could be prevented or at least slowed down.

DE GREY: So for illustration, let me just talk about one category.

RAZ: Sure.

DE GREY: Cell loss - what is cell loss? It's simply cells in a particular organ or tissue dying and not being automatically replaced by the division of other cells. Now, it turns out that that is actually an important contributor to certain aspects of aging - Parkinson's disease, for example.

Now, the thing is, we know what the fix for that one is. We know that the right way to repair that kind of damage is stem cell therapy. Now, progress in that area has been patchy over the past 20 years that people have been thinking about this. But now, it's going really well. There are a couple of clinical trials going on. And I'm really optimistic. I think most people are very optimistic. I would say that we've got a very good chance of actually totally curing Parkinson's disease with stem cells in the next 10 years, even.

RAZ: Wow.

DE GREY: That's one of the easier ones. A lot of the aspects of aging that we need to fix, however, are a lot harder. And I think, you know, we might be talking 20 or 25 years, and that's largely because they're less well-understood.

RAZ: I mean, you're saying that within 20 or 25 years, we can solve significant parts of the aging process. We can actually...

DE GREY: I would go a bit further than that. I would say that we can probably bring aging under comprehensive medical control within 20 or 25 years.

RAZ: I mean, if...

DE GREY: And of course, I do want to - I don't want to introduce - before you go on, I do want to make sure that I get my caveats in. First of all, I'm only saying probably. I'm saying we have at least a 50-50 chance of getting there in that time. I recognize that any prediction one makes about timeframes for anything that's more than even a couple of years away is extremely speculative. The other caveat that I definitely want to get in right now is, at the moment, we're probably going three times more slowly than what we could be going just because there's so little funding available for this critical work.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

DE GREY: So I think it's all about this. I think it's that aging is so horrible, so scary that we have found it necessary to put it out of our minds and pretend that it's not horrible at all. And it doesn't matter how we do that so long as we can, so long as we succeed in tricking ourselves into the idea that aging is a good thing even though it doesn't look like a good thing. That made perfect sense. It was a rational thing to do until very recently because until very recently, nobody had any idea what to do about aging, but now we do. Now we are within a reasonable distance, within striking distance, of developing medicine that really brings aging under the same level of medical control that we have already today for most infectious diseases like, you know, tuberculosis or whatever.

It's like this. People will refuse to think about whether it's actually a good idea to defeat aging because they say, well, it doesn't really matter whether it's a good idea or not - does it? - because we're never going to do it. But the same people at the same time will also say - they will refuse to think about whether it's actually likely that we could do anything about aging anytime soon because who cares, because it's a bad idea, right? So the pessimism about the desirability and the pessimism about the feasibility join together to perpetuate each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Aubrey's foundation, SENS, has a yearly budget of about $4 million, which is not a lot of money in the world of medical research, and it's why you can find so many talks and interviews with Aubrey online. He is nothing if not tenacious. But what's interesting is that for a 52-year-old guy who spends so much of his time talking about extending life, he says he really doesn't think about the end of his own.

DE GREY: I really don't. I'm too busy.

RAZ: This doesn't - it's not something that you're worried about.

DE GREY: I'm not a worrier.

RAZ: Yeah.

DE GREY: I'm just not that kind of guy.

RAZ: Yeah.

DE GREY: I'm a practical guy. I like to get things done. I like to make a difference.

RAZ: Do you think that, I mean, if in a world where people didn't die or didn't die as quickly that, you know, the sort of - the - I don't know - like...

DE GREY: That without, there'd be some kind of cultural ossification.

RAZ: Yeah.

DE GREY: Well, I - well, I mean, it's a fair question. But honestly, it's not the kind of question that keeps me up at night.

RAZ: Right.

DE GREY: 'Cause really, you know, first of all, even if we did have a problem right there, that's the kind of problem we'd like to have.

RAZ: (Laughter).

DE GREY: Can one really seriously say that it's as serious as this horrible curse that generally is preceded by this long period of decrepitude and disease and decline and dependence and general misery? You know, it's crazy to think that way. People have just got to get their heads together and have a sense of proportion.

RAZ: But you're arguing that the right investment in certain scientific research couldn't just get us to a hundred or 110, but it could get us to 110, playing tennis.

DE GREY: That's exactly right - in fact, keeping up with your granddaughter on the dance floor.

RAZ: Is that going to happen?

DE GREY: Well, I've just told you it would. You sound as though you don't quite believe me.

RAZ: I do, but you can understand why it still, today, in 2015, sounds like science fiction, right?

DE GREY: Things that are only - have only a 50 percent chance of happening in 20 years from now are supposed to sound like science fiction.

RAZ: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Aubrey de Grey - you can learn more about his SENS Research Foundation or see several of his talks at ted.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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