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 June, a team of surgeons at Duke University Hospital implanted the latest model of an artificial heart in a 39-year-old man with severe heart failure, a condition in which the heart doesn't pump properly. The man's mechanical heart, made by French company Carmat, is a new generation artificial heart and the first of its kind to be transplanted in the United States. It connects to a portable external power supply and is designed to keep the patient alive until a replacement organ becomes available.
Many patients die while waiting for a heart transplant, but artificial hearts can bridge the gap. Though not a permanent solution for heart failure, artificial hearts have saved countless lives since their first implantation in 1982.
What might surprise you is that the origin of the artificial heart dates back decades before, when an inventive television actor teamed up with a famous doctor to design and patent the first such device.
A man of many talents
Paul Winchell was an entertainer in the 1950s and 60s, rising to fame as a ventriloquist and guest-starring as an actor on programs like "The Ed Sullivan Show" and "Perry Mason." When children's animation boomed in the 1960s, Winchell made a name for himself as a voice actor on shows like "The Smurfs," "Winnie the Pooh," and "The Jetsons." He eventually became famous for originating the voices of Tigger from "Winnie the Pooh" and Gargamel from "The Smurfs," among many others.
But Winchell wasn't just an entertainer: He also had a quiet passion for science and medicine. Between television gigs, Winchell busied himself working as a medical hypnotist and acupuncturist, treating the same Hollywood stars he performed alongside. When he wasn't doing that, Winchell threw himself into engineering and design, building not only the ventriloquism dummies he used on his television appearances but a host of products he'd dreamed up himself. Winchell spent hours tinkering with his own inventions, such as a set of battery-powered gloves and something called a "flameless lighter." Over the course of his life, Winchell designed and patented more than 30 of these products – mostly novelties, but also serious medical devices, such as a portable blood plasma defroster.
|Ventriloquist Paul Winchell with Jerry Mahoney, his dummy, in 1951|
A meeting of the minds
In the early 1950s, Winchell appeared on a variety show called the "Arthur Murray Dance Party" and faced off in a dance competition with the legendary Ricardo Montalban (Winchell won). At a cast party for the show later that same night, Winchell met Dr. Henry Heimlich – the same doctor who would later become famous for inventing the Heimlich maneuver, who was married to Murray's daughter. The two hit it off immediately, bonding over their shared interest in medicine. Before long, Heimlich invited Winchell to come observe him in the operating room at the hospital where he worked. Winchell jumped at the opportunity, and not long after he became a frequent guest in Heimlich's surgical theatre, fascinated by the mechanics of the human body.
One day while Winchell was observing at the hospital, he witnessed a patient die on the operating table after undergoing open-heart surgery. He was suddenly struck with an idea: If there was some way doctors could keep blood pumping temporarily throughout the body during surgery, patients who underwent risky operations like open-heart surgery might have a better chance of survival. Winchell rushed to Heimlich with the idea – and Heimlich agreed to advise Winchell and look over any design drafts he came up with. So Winchell went to work.
As it turned out, building ventriloquism dummies wasn't that different from building an artificial heart, Winchell noted later in his autobiography – the shifting valves and chambers of the mechanical heart were similar to the moving eyes and opening mouths of his puppets. After each design, Winchell would go back to Heimlich and the two would confer, making adjustments along the way to.
By 1956, Winchell had perfected his design: The "heart" consisted of a bag that could be placed inside the human body, connected to a battery-powered motor outside of the body. The motor enabled the bag to pump blood throughout the body, similar to a real human heart. Winchell received a patent for the design in 1963.
At the time, Winchell never quite got the credit he deserved. Years later, researchers at the University of Utah, working on their own artificial heart, came across Winchell's patent and got in touch with Winchell to compare notes. Winchell ended up donating his patent to the team, which included Dr. Richard Jarvik. Jarvik expanded on Winchell's design and created the Jarvik-7 – the world's first artificial heart to be successfully implanted in a human being in 1982.
The Jarvik-7 has since been replaced with newer, more efficient models made up of different synthetic materials, allowing patients to live for longer stretches without the heart clogging or breaking down. With each new generation of hearts, heart failure patients have been able to live relatively normal lives for longer periods of time and with fewer complications than before – and it never would have been possible without the unsung genius of a puppeteer and his love of science.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
Elaine Kamil had just returned home after a few days of business meetings in 2013 when she started having chest pains. At first Kamil, then 66, wasn't worried—she had had some chest pain before and recently went to a cardiologist to do a stress test, which was normal.
"I can't be having a heart attack because I just got checked," she thought, attributing the discomfort to stress and high demands of her job. A pediatric nephrologist at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, she takes care of critically ill children who are on dialysis or are kidney transplant patients. Supporting families through difficult times and answering calls at odd hours is part of her daily routine, and often leaves her exhausted.
She figured the pain would go away. But instead, it intensified that night. Kamil's husband drove her to the Cedars-Sinai hospital, where she was admitted to the coronary care unit. It turned out she wasn't having a heart attack after all. Instead, she was diagnosed with a much less common but nonetheless dangerous heart condition called takotsubo syndrome, or broken heart syndrome.
A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart is obstructed—such as when an artery is blocked—causing heart muscle tissue to die. In takotsubo syndrome, the blood flow isn't blocked, but the heart doesn't pump it properly. The heart changes its shape and starts to resemble a Japanese fishing device called tako-tsubo, a clay pot with a wider body and narrower mouth, used to catch octopus.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks," explains Noel Bairey Merz, the cardiologist at Cedar Sinai who Kamil went to see after she was discharged.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks."
But even though the heart isn't permanently damaged, mortality rates due to takotsubo syndrome are comparable to those of a heart attack, Merz notes—about 4-5% of patients die from the attack, and 20% within the next five years. "It's as bad as a heart attack," Merz says—only it's much less known, even to doctors. The condition affects only about 1% of people, and there are around 15,000 new cases annually. It's diagnosed using a cardiac ventriculogram, an imaging test that allows doctors to see how the heart pumps blood.
Scientists don't fully understand what causes Takotsubo syndrome, but it usually occurs after extreme emotional or physical stress. Doctors think it's triggered by a so-called catecholamine storm, a phenomenon in which the body releases too much catecholamines—hormones involved in the fight-or-flight response. Evolutionarily, when early humans lived in savannas or forests and had to either fight off predators or flee from them, these hormones gave our ancestors the needed strength and stamina to take either action. Released by nerve endings and by the adrenal glands that sit on top of the kidneys, these hormones still flood our bodies in moments of stress, but an overabundance of them could sometimes be damaging.
A recent study by scientists at Harvard Medical School linked increased risk of takotsubo to higher activity in the amygdala, a brain region responsible for emotions that's involved in responses to stress. The scientists believe that chronic stress makes people more susceptible to the syndrome. Notably, one small study suggested that the number of Takotsubo cases increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are no specific drugs to treat takotsubo, so doctors rely on supportive therapies, which include medications typically used for high blood pressure and heart failure. In most cases, the heart returns to its normal shape within a few weeks. "It's a spontaneous recovery—the catecholamine storm is resolved, the injury trigger is removed and the heart heals itself because our bodies have an amazing healing capacity," Merz says. It also helps that tissues remain intact. 'The heart cells don't die, they just aren't functioning properly for some time."
That's the good news. The bad news is that takotsubo is likely to strike again—in 5-20% of patients the condition comes back, sometimes more severe than before.
That's exactly what happened to Kamil. After getting her diagnosis in 2013, she realized that she actually had a previous takotsubo episode. In 2010, she experienced similar symptoms after her son died. "The night after he died, I was having severe chest pain at night, but I was too overwhelmed with grief to do anything about it," she recalls. After a while, the pain subsided and didn't return until three years later.
For weeks after her second attack, she felt exhausted, listless and anxious. "You lose confidence in your body," she says. "You have these little twinges on your chest, or if you start having arrhythmia, and you wonder if this is another episode coming up. It's really unnerving because you don't know how to read these cues." And that's very typical, Merz says. Even when the heart muscle appears to recover, patients don't return to normal right away. They have shortens of breath, they can't exercise, and they stay anxious and worried for a while.
Women over the age of 50 are diagnosed with takotsubo more often than other demographics. However, it happens in men too, although it typically strikes after physical stress, such as a triathlon or an exhausting day of cycling. Young people can also get takotsubo. Older patients are hospitalized more often, but younger people tend to have more severe complications. It could be because an older person may go for a jog while younger one may run a marathon, which would take a stronger toll on the body of a person who's predisposed to the condition.
Notably, the emotional stressors don't always have to be negative—the heart muscle can get out of shape from good emotions, too. "There have been case reports of takotsubo at weddings," Merz says. Moreover, one out of three or four takotsubo patients experience no apparent stress, she adds. "So it could be that it's not so much the catecholamine storm itself, but the body's reaction to it—the physiological reaction deeply embedded into out physiology," she explains.
Merz and her team are working to understand what makes people predisposed to takotsubo. They think a person's genetics play a role, but they haven't yet pinpointed genes that seem to be responsible. Genes code for proteins, which affect how the body metabolizes various compounds, which, in turn, affect the body's response to stress. Pinning down the protein involved in takotsubo susceptibility would allow doctors to develop screening tests and identify those prone to severe repeating attacks. It will also help develop medications that can either prevent it or treat it better than just waiting for the body to heal itself.
Researchers at the Imperial College London recently found that elevated levels of certain types of microRNAs—molecules involved in protein production—increase the chances of developing takotsubo.
In one study, researchers tried treating takotsubo in mice with a drug called suberanilohydroxamic acid, or SAHA, typically used for cancer treatment. The drug improved cardiac health and reversed the broken heart in rodents. It remains to be seen if the drug would have a similar effect on humans. But identifying a drug that shows promise is progress, Merz says. "I'm glad that there's research in this area."