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Aubrey de Grey

with an idea than involved essentially removing–from the whole body, not just the cancer–the ability to extend the telomeres, the ends of the chromosomes, which one has to extend in order for the cells to divide indefinitely, which, of course, is what cancers do. It would take me another half hour to explain the whole thing. It’s a complicated therapy, but, again, I have discussed this extensively with people who are expert in the various components of the therapy. We had a whole meeting to discuss it.

David: This book will include an interview with Michael Fossel, who went into great detail describing how telomeres influence cell division and the possibility of telomerase therapy in the future.

Aubrey: Oh that’s interesting. Michael Fossel and I are good friends, but he thinks that the main key to actually fixing aging is to reinvigorate the ability of cells to maintain their telomeres, and I think that that’s crazy. I think that what we want to do is actually eliminate the ability of cells to do that so that we won’t die of cancer. This is actually an area in which I am in the gerontological mainstream, and Michael isn’t.

David: Why do you want to live forever? 

Aubrey: It’s not that I really want to live forever, but rather, it’s just that I don’t want to die any time soon. Furthermore, I don’t expect that, in due course, when I have not died any time soon, I will want to die any time soon then either. If you live a year, and you’re still healthy, young, vibrant, and enjoying life, then you’re not going to want to die that year, and you’ll want to live another year. Then you won’t want to die that year either. So you don’t live to a thousand all in one go. You live to a thousand one year at a time.

David: Why do you think so many people are resistant to the notion of physical immortality?

Aubrey: I think that people are resistant because it would be such a dramatic change in everything about society and how we think about each other. Now people are scared of change, even if it’s obviously good. I think that’s really what it comes down to.

David: Why do you think the aging process evolved, and do you think that there might be an evolutionarily advantageous reason for genetically-programmed death?

Aubrey: That’s an easy question. It didn’t evolve. It’s just that the absence of aging hasn’t really evolved. Aging is what happens by default.

David: So you don’t think there’s an evolutionary advantageous reason for it?

Aubrey: That’s right. There’s no advantageous reason not to age. It’s just that it’s disadvantageous to work too hard not to age. Evolution doesn’t care about the lifespans of individual organisms. It cares about the survival of individual genes, or genetic information, and how many organisms you have to get through per unit of time–how many generations–is irrelevant. There are certain evolutionary pressures that do alter lifespan, so of course, evolution does sometimes evolve longer-lived organisms from short lived ones, in the same way that we evolved from apes that don’t live as long as we do, for example. But that’s a secondary thing. Evolution would never evolve aging away completely because it’s too hard, and there’s no point. There’s a certain amount of maintenance that it’s worth carrying around the genetic machinery to do, and beyond that it’s just not worth it. You might as well just get on with reproducing more.

David: What sort of relationship do you see between aging and predation?

Aubrey: Oh plenty. This is the major reason why different organisms have different lifespans, and this has been understood for about forty years now actually. The rate at which you are killed for reasons other than aging determines how much effort it is worth putting into not dying of aging. The rate at which your species is killed is not due just to predation of course. You can include here things like starvation and hypothermia, but predation is a really important one. So, for example, if you’re a highly predated organism–an organism that doesn’t live very long because you get eaten–then you’d darned well better get on and breed before you get eaten, because you won’t get another chance. So it’s worth putting your effort into breeding, and there’s not much point in spending a lot of energy on a lot of genetic machinery in heavy duty molecular maintenance, whereas if you are a low predation organism, like a bird for example, that can fly away from predators, then it’s not the same at all. It’s better to put a lot of effort into not aging, so that you can live a long time and choose which summer to have a lot of offspring, like when there’s lots of food around for example.

David: I read that you signed up with Alcor, the cryonic suspension facility in Arizona. How long do you think it will be before we have developed nanotechnology sufficiently to revive people in cryonic suspension?

Aubrey: Oh, it’s going to be a very very long time indeed. My hunch is that it’s not going to be in the next hundred years. But of course anything that far out is complete guesswork, so it’s only a hunch.

David: Can you talk a little about your interest in cryonics, and what sort of potential you see for cryonic suspension as a form of life extension? 

Aubrey: I think cryonics is now an absolutely valid biomedical strategy.  Until a few years ago one could argue – not conclusively, but strongly – that the damage done to someone’s brain when they are cryopreserved is so extensive that the possibility of resuscitation, even with arbitrarily advanced technology, is basically nil, because the information necessary to reconstruct the brain has gone.  But we now have cryoprotectants that are so good that a brain can be taken down to liquid nitrogen temperature without any formation of crystalline ice at all — it becomes a glass. That means there is hardly any structural damage — and we know that if the structure is preserved then function should be restorable too, even though electrical activity was suspended, because that’s what happens when people fall into frozen lakes and are resuscitated after minutes (over an hour in some cases) of cardiac arrest.  

For me this is even more realistic to think about than for most biologists, because I focus on life-extension technologies that repair pre-existing molecular and cellular damage.  Thus, in a very real sense, resuscitation from cryonic suspension is a natural extension of the range of therapies that I work on for people who are not yet legally dead.  Once you understand that the legal definition of death is just a convenience, and has virtually no biological meaning, it’s easy to see that restoring someone from a state that is legally dead but biologically almost intact is not science fiction at all.  It might not work, to be sure — not least because it is a tricky business making sure that you get the best cryopreservation possible — but for those of us who won’t live long enough to make the “escape velocity” cut, it’s our best bet.

David: How long do you think it’s possible for human life span to be extended?

Aubrey: You mean in the absence of cryonics? You mean continuously alive?

David: Yes.

Aubrey: Oh, I think it’s more or less certain that we can do so indefinitely, but not all at once. I think that the therapies that I talk about–which ought to be possible to develop within the next twenty-five or thirty years if we get good funding soon–will probably give us a few decades of extra lifespan. That’s not forever. That’s not living indefinitely at all. But a few decades is a long time, especially since these therapies will be ones that will be applicable to people who are already in middle age at the time those therapies arrive. 

So you can imagine someone who’s sixty, for example, benefiting from these therapies and basically staying physiologically sixty or less, physiologically in their early middle age, shall we say, for another thirty years. After those thirty years, if nothing else has come along to make the therapies better, then other stuff will start catching up with them. Little imperfections and incompletenesses in the therapies will build up and aging will happen just as now. It just will happen later on. But, of course, as I said, that’s only the case if nothing else comes along in those thirty years, and that’s not what’s going to happen. 

In those thirty years people will be banging away to feverishly improve these therapies in terms of cost, and in terms of convenience and safety of course, but also in terms of comprehensiveness. So well before these thirty years are up therapies will be coming along that will confer another thirty years, a half century, or whatever. Basically people who are young enough and fit enough at the time these first generation therapies come along to benefit from them (let’s say they’re in their sixties or less) will, by and large, have no reason to die of old age at any age, because we will keep ahead of the game. I’ve been calling this “life extension escape velocity” that we will be exceeding. We’ll be solving problems before they arrive.

David: How do you think human societies will change when people start living for hundreds or thousands of years?

Aubrey: There will probably be pretty big changes, enormous changes actually. One of the most important ones of course is that there will

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