Aging is not a mystery, says famed researcher Dr. Aubrey de Grey, perhaps the world's foremost advocate of the provocative view that medical technology will one day allow humans to control the aging process and live healthily into our hundreds—or even thousands.
"The cultural attitudes toward all of this are going to be completely turned upside down by sufficiently promising results in the lab, in mice."
He likens aging to a car wearing down over time; as the body operates normally, it accumulates damage which can be tolerated for a while, but eventually sends us into steep decline. The most promising way to escape this biological reality, he says, is to repair the damage as needed with precise scientific tools.
The bad news is that doing this groundbreaking research takes a long time and a lot of money, which has not always been readily available, in part due to a cultural phenomenon he terms "the pro-aging trance." Cultural attitudes have long been fatalistic about the inevitability of aging; many people balk at the seemingly implausible prospect of indefinite longevity.
But the good news for de Grey—and those who are cheering him on—is that his view is becoming less radical these days. Both the academic and private sectors are racing to tackle aging; his own SENS Research Foundation, for one, has spun out into five different companies. Defeating aging, he says, "is not just a future industry; it's an industry now that will be both profitable and extremely good for your health."
De Grey sat down with Editor-in-Chief Kira Peikoff at the World Stem Cell Summit in Miami to give LeapsMag the latest scoop on his work. Here is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
Since your book Ending Aging was published a decade ago, scientific breakthroughs in stem cell research, genome editing, and other fields have taken the world by storm. Which of these have most affected your research?
They have all affected it a lot in one way, and hardly at all in another way. They have speeded it up--facilitated short cuts, ways to get where we're already trying to go. What they have not done is identified any fundamental changes to the overall strategy. In the book, we described the seven major types of damage, and particular ways of going about fixing each of them, and that hasn't changed.
"Repair at the microscopic level, one would be able to expect to do without surgery, just by injecting the right kind of stem cells."
Has any breakthrough specifically made the biggest impact?
It's not just the obvious things, like iPS (induced pluripotent stem cells) and CRISPR (a precise tool for editing genes). It's also the more esoteric things that applied specifically to certain of our areas, but most people don't really know about them. For example, the identification of how to control something called co-translational mitochondrial protein import.
How much of the future of anti-aging treatments will involve regeneration of old tissue, or wholesale growth of new organs?
The more large-scale ones, regenerating whole new organs, are probably only going to play a role in the short-term and will be phased out relatively rapidly, simply because, in order to be useful, one has to employ surgery, which is really invasive. We'll want to try to get around that, but it seems quite likely that in the very early stages, the techniques we have for repairing things at the molecular and cellular level in situ will be insufficiently comprehensive, and so we will need to do the more sledgehammer approach of building a whole new organ and sticking it in.
Every time you are in a position where you're replacing an organ, you have the option, in principle, of repairing the organ, without replacing it. And repair at the microscopic level, one would be able to expect to do without surgery, just by injecting the right kind of stem cells or whatever. That would be something one would expect to be able to apply to someone much closer to death's door and much more safely in general, and probably much more cheaply. One would expect that subsequent generations of these therapies would move in that direction.
Your foundation is working on an initiative requiring $50 million in funding—
Well, if we had $50 million per year in funding, we could go about three times faster than we are on $5 million per year.
And you're looking at a 2021 timeframe to start human trials?
That's approximate. Remember, because we accumulate in the body so many different types of damage, that means we have many different types of therapy to repair that damage. And of course, each of those types has to be developed independently. It's very much a divide and conquer therapy. The therapies interact with each other to some extent; the repair of one type of damage may slow down the creation of another type of damage, but still that's how it's going to be.
And some of these therapies are much easier to implement than others. The easier components of what we need to do are already in clinical trials—stem cell therapies especially, and immunotherapy against amyloid in the brain, for example. Even in phase III clinical trials in some cases. So when I talk about a timeframe like 2021, or early 20s shall we say, I'm really talking about the most difficult components.
What recent strides are you most excited about?
Looking back over the past couple of years, I'm particularly proud of the successes we've had in the very most difficult areas. If you go through the 7 components of SENS, there are two that have absolutely been stuck in a rut and have gotten nowhere for 15 to 20 years, and we basically fixed that in both cases. We published two years ago in Science magazine that essentially showed a way forward against the stiffening of the extracellular matrix, which is responsible for things like wrinkles and hypertension. And then a year ago, we published a real breakthrough paper with regard to placing copies of the mitochondria DNA in the nuclear DNA modified in such a way that they still work, which is an idea that had been around for 30 years; everyone had given up on it, some a long time ago, and we basically revived it.
A slide presented by Aubrey de Grey, referencing his collaboration with Mike West at AgeX, showing the 7 types of damage that he believes must be repaired to end aging.
(Courtesy Kira Peikoff)
That's exciting. What do you think are the biggest barriers to defeating aging today: the technological challenges, the regulatory framework, the cost, or the cultural attitude of the "pro-aging" trance?
One can't really address those independently of each other. The technological side is one thing; it's hard, but we know where we're going, we've got a plan. The other ones are very intertwined with each other. A lot of people are inclined to say, the regulatory hurdle will be completely insurmountable, plus people don't recognize aging as a disease, so it's going to be a complete nonstarter. I think that's nonsense. And the reason is because the cultural attitudes toward all of this are going to be completely turned upside down before we have to worry about the regulatory hurdles. In other words, they're going to be turned upside down by sufficiently promising results in the lab, in mice. Once we get to be able to rejuvenate actually old mice really well so they live substantially longer than they otherwise would have done, in a healthy state, everyone's going to know about it and everyone's going to demand – it's not going to be possible to get re-elected unless you have a manifesto commitment to turn the FDA completely upside down and make sure this happens without any kind of regulatory obstacle.
I've been struggling away all these years trying to bring little bits of money in the door, and the reason I have is because of the skepticism as to regards whether this could actually work, combined with the pro-aging trance, which is a product of the skepticism – people not wanting to get their hopes up, so finding excuses about aging being a blessing in disguise, so they don't have to think about it. All of that will literally disintegrate pretty much overnight when we have the right kind of sufficiently impressive progress in the lab. Therefore, the availability of money will also [open up]. It's already cracking: we're already seeing the beginnings of the actual rejuvenation biotechnology industry that I've been talking about with a twinkle in my eye for some years.
"For humans, a 50-50 chance would be twenty years at this point, and there's a 10 percent chance that we won't get there for a hundred years."
Why do you think the culture is starting to shift?
There's no one thing yet. There will be that tipping point I mentioned, perhaps five years from now when we get a real breakthrough, decisive results in mice that make it simply impossible to carry on being fatalistic about all this. Prior to that, what we're already seeing is the impact of sheer old-school repeat advertising—me going out there, banging away and saying the same fucking thing again and again, and nobody saying anything that persuasively knocks me down. … And it's also the fact that we are making incremental amounts of progress, not just ourselves, but the scientific community generally. It has become incrementally more plausible that what I say might be true.
I'm sure you hate getting the timeline question, but if we're five years away from this breakthrough in mice, it's hard to resist asking—how far is that in terms of a human cure?
When I give any kind of timeframes, the only real care I have to take is to emphasize the variance. In this case I think we have got a 50-50 chance of getting to that tipping point in mice within five years from now, certainly it could be 10 or 15 years if we get unlucky. Similarly, for humans, a 50-50 chance would be twenty years at this point, and there's a 10 percent chance that we won't get there for a hundred years.
"I don't get people coming to me saying, well I don't think medicine for the elderly should be done because if it worked it would be a bad thing. People like to ignore this contradiction."
What would you tell skeptical people are the biggest benefits of a very long-lived population?
Any question about the longevity of people is the wrong question. Because the longevity that people fixate about so much will only ever occur as a side effect of health. However long ago you were born or however recently, if you're sick, you're likely to die fairly soon unless we can stop you being sick. Whereas if you're healthy, you're not. So if we do as well as we think we can do in terms of keeping people healthy and youthful however long ago they were born, then the side effect in terms of longevity and life expectancy is likely to be very large. But it's still a side effect, so the way that people actually ought to be—in fact have a requirement to be—thinking, is about whether they want people to be healthy.
Now I don't get people coming to me saying, well I don't think medicine for the elderly should be done because if it worked it would be a bad thing. People like to ignore this contradiction, they like to sweep it under the carpet and say, oh yeah, aging is totally a good thing.
People will never actually admit to the fact that what they are fundamentally saying is medicine for the elderly, if it actually works, would be bad, but still that is what they are saying.
Shifting gears a bit, I'm curious to find out which other radical visionaries in science and tech today you most admire?
Fair question. One is Mike West. I have the great privilege that I now work for him part-time with Age X. I have looked up to him very much for the past ten years, because what he did over the past 20 years starting with Geron is unimaginable today. He was working in an environment where I would not have dreamt of the possibility of getting any private money, any actual investment, in something that far out, that far ahead of its time, and he did it, again and again. It's insane what he managed to do.
What about someone like Elon Musk?
Sure, he's another one. He is totally impervious to the caution and criticism and conservatism that pervades humanity, and he's getting on making these bloody self-driving cars, space tourism, and so on, making them happen. He's thinking just the way I'm thinking really.
"You can just choose how frequently and how thoroughly you repair the damage. And you can make a different choice next time."
You famously said ten years ago that you think the first person to live to 1000 is already alive. Do you think that's still the case?
Definitely, yeah. I can't see how it could not be. Again, it's a probabilistic thing. I said there's at least a 10 percent chance that we won't get to what I call Longevity Escape Velocity for 100 years and if that's true, then the statement about 1000 years being alive already is not going to be the case. But for sure, I believe that the beneficiaries of what we may as well call SENS 1.0, the point where we get to LEV, those people are exceptionally unlikely ever to suffer from any kind of ill health correlated with their age. Because we will never fall below Longevity Escape Velocity once we attain it.
Could someone who was just born today expect—
I would say people in middle age now have a fair chance. Remember – a 50/50 chance of getting to LEV within 20 years, and when you get there, you don't just stay at biologically 70 or 80, you are rejuvenated back to biologically 30 or 40 and you stay there, so your risk of death each year is not related to how long ago you were born, it's the same as a young adult. Today, that's less than 1 in 1000 per year, and that number is going to go down as we get self-driving cars and all that, so actually 1000 is a very conservative number.
So you would be able to choose what age you wanted to go back to?
Oh sure, of course, it's just like a car. What you're doing is you're repairing damage, and the damage is still being created by the body's metabolism, so you can just choose how frequently and how thoroughly you repair the damage. And you can make a different choice next time.
What would be your perfect age?
I have no idea. That's something I don't have an opinion about, because I could change it whenever I like.
In 2014, the city of Flint, Michigan switched the residents' water supply to the Flint river, citing cheaper costs. However, due to improper filtering, lead contaminated this water, and according to the Associated Press, many of the city's residents soon reported health issues like hair loss and rashes. In 2015, a report found that children there had high levels of lead in their blood. The National Resource Defense Council recently discovered there could still be as many as twelve million lead pipes carrying water to homes across the U.S.
What if Flint residents and others in afflicted areas could simply flick water onto their phone screens and an app would tell them if they were about to drink contaminated water? This is what researchers at the University of Cambridge are working on to prevent catastrophes like what occurred in Flint, and to prepare for an uncertain future of scarcer resources.
Underneath the tough glass of our phone screen lies a transparent layer of electrodes. Because our bodies hold an electric charge, when our finger touches the screen, it disrupts the electric field created among the electrodes. This is how the screen can sense where a touch occurs. Cambridge scientists used this same idea to explore whether the screen could detect charges in water, too. Metals like arsenic and lead can appear in water in the form of ions, which are charged particles. When the ionic solution is placed on the screen's surface, the electrodes sense that charge like how they sense our finger.
Imagine a new generation of smartphones with a designated area of the screen responsible for detecting contamination—this is one of the possible futures the researchers propose.
The experiment measured charges in various electrolyte solutions on a touchscreen. The researchers found that a thin polymer layer between the electrodes and the sample solution helped pick up the charges.
"How can we get really close to the touch electrodes, and be better than a phone screen?" Horstmann, the lead scientist on the study, asked himself while designing the protective coating. "We found that when we put electrolytes directly on the electrodes, they were too close, even short-circuiting," he said. When they placed the polymer layer on top the electrodes, however, this short-circuiting did not occur. Horstmann speaks of the polymer layer as one of the key findings of the paper, as it allowed for optimum conductivity. The coating they designed was much thinner than what you'd see with a typical smartphone touchscreen, but because it's already so similar, he feels optimistic about the technology's practical applications in the real world.
While the Cambridge scientists were using touchscreens to measure water contamination, Dr. Baojun Wang, a synthetic biologist at the University of Edinburgh, along with his team, created a way to measure arsenic contamination in Bangladesh groundwater samples using what is called a cell-based biosensor. These biosensors use cornerstones of cellular activity like transcription and promoter sequences to detect the presence of metal ions in water. A promoter can be thought of as a "flag" that tells certain molecules where to begin copying genetic code. By hijacking this aspect of the cell's machinery and increasing the cell's sensing and signal processing ability, they were able to amplify the signal to detect tiny amounts of arsenic in the groundwater samples. All this was conducted in a 384-well plate, each well smaller than a pencil eraser.
They placed arsenic sensors with different sensitivities across part of the plate so it resembled a volume bar of increasing levels of arsenic, similar to diagnostics on a Fitbit or glucose monitor. The whole device is about the size of an iPhone, and can be scaled down to a much smaller size.
Dr. Wang says cell-based biosensors are bringing sensing technology closer to field applications, because their machinery uses inherent cellular activity. This makes them ideal for low-resource communities, and he expects his device to be affordable, portable, and easily stored for widespread use in households.
"It hasn't worked on actual phones yet, but I don't see any reason why it can't be an app," says Horstmann of their technology. Imagine a new generation of smartphones with a designated area of the screen responsible for detecting contamination—this is one of the possible futures the researchers propose. But industry collaborations will be crucial to making their advancements practical. The scientists anticipate that without collaborative efforts from the business sector, the public might have to wait ten years until this becomes something all our smartphones are capable of—but with the right partners, "it could go really quickly," says Dr. Elizabeth Hall, one of the authors on the touchscreen water contamination study.
"That's where the science ends and the business begins," Dr. Hall says. "There is a lot of interest coming through as a result of this paper. I think the people who make the investments and decisions are seeing that there might be something useful here."
As for Flint, according to The Detroit News, the city has entered the final stages in removing lead pipe infrastructure. It's difficult to imagine how many residents might fare better today if they'd had the technology that scientists are now creating.
Of all its tragedy, COVID-19 has increased demand for at-home testing methods, which has carried over to non-COVID-19-related devices. Various testing efforts are now in the public eye.
"I like that the public is watching these directions," says Horstmann. "I think there's a long way to go still, but it's exciting."
A natural material that looks and feels like real leather is taking the fashion world by storm. Scientists view mycelium—the vegetative part of a mushroom-producing fungus—as a planet-friendly alternative to animal hides and plastics.
Products crafted from this vegan leather are emerging, with others poised to hit the market soon. Among them are the Hermès Victoria bag, Lululemon's yoga accessories, Adidas' Stan Smith Mylo sneaker, and a Stella McCartney apparel collection.
The Adidas' Stan Smith Mylo concept sneaker, made in partnership with Bolt Threads, uses an alternative leather grown from mycelium; a commercial version is expected in the near future.
Hermès has held presales on the new bag, says Philip Ross, co-founder and chief technology officer of MycoWorks, a San Francisco Bay area firm whose materials constituted the design. By year-end, Ross expects several more clients to debut mycelium-based merchandise. With "comparable qualities to luxury leather," mycelium can be molded to engineer "all the different verticals within fashion," he says, particularly footwear and accessories.
More than a half-dozen trailblazers are fine-tuning mycelium to create next-generation leather materials, according to the Material Innovation Initiative, a nonprofit advocating for animal-free materials in the fashion, automotive, and home-goods industries. These high-performance products can supersede items derived from leather, silk, down, fur, wool, and exotic skins, says A. Sydney Gladman, the institute's chief scientific officer.
That's only the beginning of mycelium's untapped prowess. "We expect to see an uptick in commercial leather alternative applications for mycelium-based materials as companies refine their R&D [research and development] and scale up," Gladman says, adding that "technological innovation and untapped natural materials have the potential to transform the materials industry and solve the enormous environmental challenges it faces."
In fewer than 10 days in indoor agricultural farms, "we grow large slabs of mycelium that are many feet wide and long. We are not confined to the shape or geometry of an animal."
Reducing our carbon footprint becomes possible because mycelium can flourish in indoor farms, using agricultural waste as feedstock and emitting inherently low greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon dioxide is the primary greenhouse gas. "We often think that when plant tissues like wood rot, that they go from something to nothing," says Jonathan Schilling, professor of plant and microbial biology at the University of Minnesota and a member of MycoWorks' Scientific Advisory Board.
But that assumption doesn't hold true for all carbon in plant tissues. When the fungi dominating the decomposition of plants fulfill their function, they transform a large portion of carbon into fungal biomass, Schilling says. That, in turn, ends up in the soil, with mycelium forming a network underneath that traps the carbon.
Unlike the large amounts of fossil fuels needed to produce styrofoam, leather and plastic, less fuel-intensive processing is involved in creating similar materials with a fungal organism. While some fungi consist of a single cell, others are multicellular and develop as very fine threadlike structures. A mass of them collectively forms a "mycelium" that can be either loose and low density or tightly packed and high density. "When these fungi grow at extremely high density," Schilling explains, "they can take on the feel of a solid material such as styrofoam, leather or even plastic."
Tunable and supple in the cultivation process, mycelium is also reliably sturdy in composition. "We believe that mycelium has some unique attributes that differentiate it from plastic-based and animal-derived products," says Gavin McIntyre, who co-founded Ecovative Design, an upstate New York-based biomaterials company, in 2007 with the goal of displacing some environmentally burdensome materials and making "a meaningful impact on our planet."
After inventing a type of mushroom-based packaging for all sorts of goods, in 2013 the firm ventured into manufacturing mycelium that can be adapted for textiles, he says, because mushrooms are "nature's recycling system."
The company aims for its material—which is "so tough and tenacious" that it doesn't require any plastic add-on as reinforcement—to be generally accessible from a pricing standpoint and not confined to a luxury space. The cost, McIntyre says, would approach that of bovine leather, not the more upscale varieties of lamb and goat skins.
Already, production has taken off by leaps and bounds. In fewer than 10 days in indoor agricultural farms, "we grow large slabs of mycelium that are many feet wide and long," he says. "We are not confined to the shape or geometry of an animal," so there's a much lower scrap rate.
Decreasing the scrap rate is a major selling point. "Our customers can order the pieces to the way that they want them, and there is almost no waste in the processing," explains Ross of MycoWorks. "We can make ours thinner or thicker," depending on a client's specific needs. Growing materials locally also results in a reduction in transportation, shipping, and other supply chain costs, he says.
Yet another advantage to making things out of mycelium is its biodegradability at the end of an item's lifecycle. When a pair of old sneakers lands in a compost pile or landfill, it decomposes thanks to microbial processes that, once again, involve fungi. "It is cool to think that the same organism used to create a product can also be what recycles it, perhaps building something else useful in the same act," says biologist Schilling. That amounts to "more than a nice business model—it is a window into how sustainability works in nature."
A product can be called "sustainable" if it's biodegradable, leaves a minimal carbon footprint during production, and is also profitable, says Preeti Arya, an assistant professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City and faculty adviser to a student club of the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, products composed of petroleum-based polymers don't biodegrade—they break down into smaller pieces or even particles. These remnants pollute landfills, oceans, and rivers, contaminating edible fish and eventually contributing to the growth of benign and cancerous tumors in humans, Arya says.
Commending the steps a few designers have taken toward bringing more environmentally conscious merchandise to consumers, she says, "I'm glad that they took the initiative because others also will try to be part of this competition toward sustainability." And consumers will take notice. "The more people become aware, the more these brands will start acting on it."
A further shift toward mycelium-based products has the capability to reap tremendous environmental dividends, says Drew Endy, associate chair of bioengineering at Stanford University and president of the BioBricks Foundation, which focuses on biotechnology in the public interest.
The continued development of "leather surrogates on a scaled and sustainable basis will provide the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people, in perpetuity," Endy says. "Transitioning the production of leather goods from a process that involves the industrial-scale slaughter of vertebrate mammals to a process that instead uses renewable fungal-based manufacturing will be more just."