Introducing Aubrey De Gray, Chris Anderson does something a bit unusual, making it clear that De Gray is an extremely controversial thinker, sometimes dismissed as being unscientific. He goes on to explain that DeGray believes that people could live to be a thousand years old.
De Gray slightly corrects this impression. What he wants to do is not keep frail people alive for a thousand years – he wants to restore people to “increased vitality and robustness”. Humans will face the choice of ending their lives earlier, or facing a “permanently low risk of dying soon”.
Why does De Gray think ageing is so important? He argues that there’s no difference between saving life and extending lives. “Ageing does not just kill people – it kills them really, really horribly.” 150,000 people die of old age each day. Ageing kills 90% of the people in the US.. and keeping them alive a few more years costs $200 billion a year, in the US alone.
Inageing was inevitable, and so ghastly, that we needed to put it out of our minds. But this may now be changing – De Gray thinks it is.
Why do we die? Metabolism causes pathology. You can try to make metabolism “cleaner” – gerontology – but we don’t understand enough about our own metabolism to do a reasonable job of tinkering with the processes. We can attempt to help people live better with the damage – geriatrics – but the damage keeps accumulating, and eventually kills people.
How do you make a car last for 50 years? Either you can build it like a tank, or you can take very good care of it. When cared for and repaired by enthusiasts, cars can last indefiniately. Vintage cars die because people don’t care about them.
De Gray is interested in an “engineering approach”. It suggests letting metabolism “lay down damage”, then correcting it with a variety of techniques. He lists a set of different techiques to combat basic cellular damage, arguing that many of these techniques are “right around the corner” – in trials in mice, possibly usable in humans in 10 years. Hence, this isn’t a “research” project, but a “development” project.
Addressing his critics directly, De Gray explains that there’s a common pattern – “They ignore you, then laugh at you, then oppose you and then claim they agreed all along.” He argues that the people who criticize him have a vested interest – they’re gerontologists who compete with him for funding and will have a tough time getting funded if we can repair the damage they’re trying to stop from happening.
De Gray tells us “I want to get middle-aged mice to live three times as long as they otherwise would.” This means a 10 year project that he’s now attempting to raise funding for.
(In a somewhat odd turn), De Gray ends by invoking 9/11 – pointing to the people who helped wrestle the hijacked airliner out of terrorist hands, crashing it into a field rather then into the Pentagon. The people who led the “passenger revolt” weren’t trying to save their own lives – they were trying to save the lives of many more people on the ground. This, De Gray suggests, is what he’s trying to do – save lives, even if he doesn’t save his own.