30 November 2020

Di Gray's Optimism

Aubrey de Grey: the fight against aging will solve the main economic problems of the XXI century


Humanity will be able to solve the main economic problems of the XXI century, which are associated with a low birth rate, an aging population and a sharp increase in health care costs, if it creates remedies for aging and comes up with how to rejuvenate people. Aubrey de Gray, associate professor at MIPT and vice president of the gerontological startup AgeX, told TASS about this in an interview.


"Drugs that can rejuvenate a person will be extremely beneficial to all states. They will simultaneously prolong the life of the population and save a lot of money on the treatment of chronic diseases. This will eliminate all the economic problems of the current century associated with the aging of the population," de Grey believes.

Aubrey de Grey is one of the most famous and at the same time controversial figures in gerontology. He suggests that aging is not an irreversible natural process, but a disease that can be dealt with by "engineering methods". Now the professor is working on the creation of rejuvenation technologies based on the SENS concept he developed. However, gerontologists are still arguing about how correct it is.

As Di Gray noted in an interview with a TASS correspondent, the problem of aging has attracted his attention almost since the beginning of his career, since it affects all of humanity and is one of those scientific tasks whose solution will radically change the face of the planet.

"I, like many other scientists, would like to leave my mark on the history of mankind. Therefore, we all strive to work on the most important and interesting scientific problems. But on the other hand, I am well aware that the very fact that I and many other well-known scientists are working on them additionally attracts attention to them and this in itself is important for the development of science. That's why I spend a lot of time popularizing our research," explained di Gray.

The problem of popularization of science

Popularization of biological research on aging and rejuvenation, according to him, performs another important task – it convinces the public that such problems can really be solved in the foreseeable future. Di Gray believes that such public work is no less important for him and other scientists than the discoveries they make.

"Sometimes the way we draw public attention to new technologies does more harm than good. A striking example of this is the statements of the Chinese geneticist Jiangkui He, because of which the CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing technology has become associated with the modification of the DNA of embryos. Another example is the history of the first experiments with cloning," explained di Gray.

In the latter case, the idea of such research has caused a lot of protests, political and public debate. The fact is that scientists decided to call "therapeutic cloning" a procedure for transferring the nucleus of an adult cell into an empty egg. According to the biologist, if they had not done this, one of the main scientific scandals of the turn of the century would have been avoided, and progress in the field of cloning would not have slowed down. It would help save thousands of lives.

On the other hand, as the scientist noted, there are also reverse examples of such forms of popularization of science. In particular, the public generally reacted positively to the idea of geneticists from Harvard University to use CRISPR/Cas9 to "resurrect" mammoths. To do this, according to scientists, it is necessary to introduce fragments of mammoth DNA into the genome of elephant cells.

In the same way, the science of aging still manages to stay in sight and, according to di Gray, avoid negative associations and scandals.

"Unfortunately, many scientists have little experience in this regard, as they communicate with the press once or twice in their lives, only when they make important discoveries. As a rule, they are extremely rarely ready for the fact that an integral part of journalism is to make a sensation. Due to my scientific and educational work, I was lucky in this regard. I communicate with the press every day and I understand well what journalists are interested in," the professor noted.

Pros and cons of immortality

For example, as noted by di Gray, he often has to answer questions about the possible negative consequences of creating technologies that will allow a person to live indefinitely or simply many times longer than now. Many journalists and ordinary people worry whether such technologies will lead to overpopulation of the planet or the emergence of new methods of political control.

"If people live longer, then no, we won't have to leave Earth and start colonizing space in order to avoid overpopulation of the planet. Simple calculations show that humanity will be too slow to colonize space in order to get rid of this problem or at least delay it. Moreover, we are already solving it by developing "green" technologies, water desalinators, synthetic meat and other things that help the planet support the lives of an increasing number of people," explained di Gray.

According to him, these technologies will develop faster than the world's population is growing. And this will be the case even if people stop dying of old age, and the birth rate does not decrease. Similarly, in his opinion, in order to prolong life and stop aging, it is unlikely that it will be necessary to use gene therapy and seriously change the structure of human DNA, which many people fear.

"Almost everything that can be done with the help of gene therapy can be achieved by changing the operation of systems controlled by such genes or proteins, the production of which is controlled by such genes. In other words, nothing prevents us from achieving the same by directly injecting enzymes or RNA molecules into cells. On the other hand, sometimes it will be easier to achieve this with the help of DNA editing, so I do not rule out either," explained di Gray.

Another similar problem – the potential "lag" of humanity in the evolutionary race with pathogens and parasites, according to di Gray, is not so significant now. The history of the last two centuries shows that humanity easily adapts to new conditions. Therefore, we have no reason to believe that civilization will not be able to do this after the first effective methods of life extension appear.

Such methods, according to di Gray, are unlikely to remain under the control of the elites or governments of a few countries of the world. In his opinion, they will very quickly become available to all mankind, since their creation and widespread use is extremely beneficial for both private companies and states.

The economic necessity of immortality

"I strongly doubt that anyone will refuse therapy or restrict access to it. Not only because it is one of the basic human rights, but also because the distribution of such medicines will simply be beneficial to society from an economic point of view. Now we are spending more and more money on the treatment of chronic diseases, and the longer people live in the future, the more acute this problem will be if we do not discover ways of rejuvenation," the scientist believes.

The question of the fastest possible development of such methods, as noted by di Gray, will be one of the main tasks for scientists of the XXI century. Already, in most developed countries, the population is aging rapidly, the burden on health systems is increasing and the proportion of the working population is decreasing.

According to the scientist, the basis for the creation of such tools and techniques over the past two or three decades has already been created - thanks to the experiments of his group and other leading experts in the study of the biology of aging, which were carried out on yeast, worms and other model invertebrates.

"I would be very surprised if in the near future we discover something fundamentally new related to the biology of aging. We already understand the nature of this process well enough to proceed to experiments on mammals and find out the features of aging that are characteristic of them," explained di Gray.

Moreover, he believes that scientists already have enough knowledge to create drugs that will either stop aging, or will allow to rejuvenate the human body. The latter, according to the professor, is a more promising goal. Scientists will direct their efforts to solve it.

"The rejuvenation process is much more complicated and diverse than simple calorie restriction or other techniques that slow down aging. This is due to the fact that we will have to eliminate all types of breakdowns and damages that accumulate in the body with age. To do this, it will be necessary to create and test many different therapies and technologies, some of which are already being tested or will be ready for clinical trials in the very near future," the professor summed up.

This weekend, De Grey will give a lecture at the Moscow International Cyber Festival Rukami, where he will talk about how he and other leading experts in the biology of aging are working to create methods of human rejuvenation.

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