According to biomedical gerontologist and founder of the SENS regenerative medical research foundation, Dr Aubrey de Grey, the financial services’ burgeoning willingness to engage with the possibility of massively extended lifespans is an encouraging trend signalling the future of anti-ageing science is bright.
Speaking to the Nest Egg podcast team at the Actuaries Institute Financial Services Forum, Dr de Grey explained that the next 30 years will likely see the development of therapies to increase a lifespan by 30 years.
However, individual and industry belief in the possibility is lower than it should be.
“When you come along and say anything quite so dramatic as this, there is a tendency to first of all just not listen, and then not believe that this could possibly be true,” Dr de Grey said.
He also spoke to Nest Egg about:
· Why investors should be investing in liquid nitrogen;
· The labour market of the future; and
· The world’s changing population capacity.
Thanks Aubrey for sharing your insights with the Nest Egg podcast team!
You can stay up-to-date with what Dr de Grey and the SENS Research Foundation are up to here.
Lucy Dean: Hi, guys. Welcome to the latest Nest Egg podcast. It's just me today, Lucy, chatting, so we've had to say goodbye to David because we're speaking onsite at the Actuaries Institute Financial Services Forum. And we're joined by Doctor Aubrey de Grey. Now, Aubrey is a fascinating person. He's a biomedical gerontologist, which means he's an expert in the study of ageing. He's also the founder of the SENS regenerative medical research foundation and he has very graciously agreed to give us a bit of his time today. Thanks for joining us, Aubrey.
Aubrey de Grey: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Lucy: We're just going to jump straight into the most, I suppose, newsworthy aspect of the conversation. It's something that you probably talk about all the time, but it's your theory, that's backed up by a lot of science, that the first person to live to 1,000 has already been born. And you've described ageing as the world's most important problem because it causes the most suffering and because we've also all agreed that it's inevitable.
So I'm just wondering, can you tell us a bit more about the science behind this? How is it that the first person to live that long is already alive?
Dr de Grey: Well, the science behind it actually doesn't say that. It only says the first half of that, which is that we have a good chance within the next 20 or 30 years of developing medicines that will extend people's lives by maybe another 30 years, relative to today. The reason why we get much larger numbers for the predictions I make is not actually because of the science that's happening now.
What it is is because the science that's happening now will give those 30 years not to people who are born then but to people who are already in middle age then, or older maybe.
Dr de Grey: In other words, it will actually rejuvenate those people and turn their clock back so that they become young adults again and they don't get to be biologically middle aged or older again for another 30 years. Now, that means that effectively we will have bought ourselves time to figure out what to do next.
Because when the person, let's say they were 60 and they come back and they're 60 again at the age of 90, the sense in which they will be biologically 60 again is that the amount of molecular and cellular damage that they have accumulated as a consequence of their metabolism will have returned back to that original point. But the damage will be more difficult because kind of by definition it will be the damage that the therapies don't work on. So if we just give the same therapies then nothing's going to happen and people are just going to get old and die, the same as today. It's just that they'll be 30 years older.
However, those 30 years is a very long time in technology, which means that it's absolutely certain that by the time the 90 year old comes in who's biologically 60 for the second time, we'll be able to rejuvenate them with better therapies so that they will actually not be biologically 60 for the third time until they're 150. And so on. And this is what I've called longevity escape velocity, that basically all we have to do is keep one step ahead of the problem. We don't actually have to achieve perfection in this elimination of the consequences of ageing, this damage repair approach. We just have to approach perfection at a sufficient rate, and that rate is actually very modest.
Lucy: It's fascinating. It's pretty mind-boggling as well. How much of a problem do you think that that is in terms of getting this science going, the fact that people see it as being so incredibly nuts that this could actually be something that happens?
Dr de Grey: Well, sure. I mean, people have spent the entire history of civilization figuring out ways to put ageing out of their minds and get on with their miserably short lives and make the best of it without being preoccupied by this terrible thing that's going to happen to them. And therefore when you come along and say anything quite so dramatic as thing then, of course, there is a tendency to first of all just not listen, and then not believe that this could possibly be true.
And, of course, any pioneering technology is speculative to some extent. And certainly the timeframe for achievement of that technology is highly speculative. So when I say that I think we've got a 50/50 chance of reaching this longevity escape velocity threshold within the next 20 or 30 years, I completely accept that we've got at least a 10 per cent chance of not getting there for a hundred years. And that means that there's also a very strong tendency for people to avoid getting their hopes up. And by again trying to pretend that the whole thing is science fiction, rather than getting emotionally invested in it.
So, yeah, I mean, it is a problem that this is such a dislocation for people.
Lucy: In terms of wealth, it seems to me that obviously the first people to benefit from this would be the wealthy. And they'll be living longer so that money, I imagine, also won't be, it won't be moving around. It'll just be sitting within-
Dr de Grey: Yeah, well, actually it's not so simple as that at all.
Dr de Grey: Because what's going to happen is even though it's going to be maybe 20 years before these therapies come along, it's probably only going to be about five or six or seven years before we get sufficient progress in the laboratory, and I don't mean just our laboratory. I mean laboratories worldwide. That the expert consensus, even the state of the expert consensus of professors who have reputations to protect, will be that, yes, this is coming. It's only a matter of time.
That's when people are going to really have to start thinking about what it means, because people are no longer going to be able to carry on believing it's never going to happen. And I believe that's actually the point where all of the political and economic and electoral influences will start to come into play. So that by the time the therapies actually come along a decade or more later, all of the complicated stuff like that will have been played out.
So, for example, one thing that's absolutely certain is that there will have been a lot of front-loading and investment to ensure that there is enough capacity in the medical system to actually supply these therapies to everybody who's old enough to need them, irrespective of their ability to pay. Not just for humanitarian and electoral reasons, but just for purely mercenary economic reasons because getting sick is very expensive and staying sick for a long time the way people do these days is very, very expensive. So if you don't have that happening you're definitely going to be saving a huge amount of money even if the therapies themselves are actually quite expensive to deliver.
You know, there's lots of other aspects to this that are going to be played out way before the therapies actually come along. And so I think that when they do come along, the transition may up being relatively smooth.
Lucy: The transition point that I come up against is also the changing nature of work. I mean, is retirement just going to cease to exist?
Dr de Grey: Well, I think, really, you know, this is a bit of a red herring because work is going away anyway. We're inventing all this automation right now that even very conservative organisations like the UN are making very firm predictions that more than half the jobs that exist today will not exist by 2030. And that's before these therapies come along, right?
So, really as far as I'm concerned, the whole business of restructuring how we distribute wealth in a society where people don't need to work is something that will have already happened, and the whole concept of pensions will have ceased to exist for a completely different reason than the one you were thinking of.
Lucy: I'm sure that's something that would be pretty interesting for the people here today, all of the superannuation fund executives. Do you see them changing their-
Dr de Grey: Oh, yeah, we're going to be putting an awful lot of people out of business, that's for sure. There's whole industries that won't exist anymore because they won't need to. Undertakers, there won't be many of them.
Lucy: No. Do you think there'll be something like a universal basic income?
Dr de Grey: Well, of course, that's a big idea right now.
Dr de Grey: It's quite a blunt instrument.
Dr de Grey: And I imagine by the time this all starts to be really needed that we will have figured out somewhat more sophisticated variations on that theme. But, yeah, certainly something very different than the assumption that everyone's going to be actually working for a living has got to come into play.
Lucy: In terms of the science, you mentioned before that a 90 year old will be as healthy as a 60 year old, and so on. Does that mean that there'll be a 90 year old with like the physical nature of a 60 year old? Or will they just have sort of paused at the level of ageing that a 60 year old would be at?
Dr de Grey: No, no, no, no. Definitely we take the people backwards so they are totally young adults, fully functioning in every way as well as how they look and how they feel.
Lucy: Very cool. It's absolutely fascinating. Aubrey, what sort of examples of this science are we seeing coming through? Is there anything we can point to yet?
Dr de Grey: Well, sure. It's all about regenerative medicine which, of course, is an established term now. Stem cell therapies are going to be very important in all of this and, of course, stem cell research has very much gone as far as the clinic now. There are many clinical trials of various types of stem cell therapies now, including ones targeting aspects of ageing like Parkinson's Disease, for example.
A number of the other areas of damage repair that are just as important in order to keep people healthy in old age are a lot less far along in terms of the research, largely because they've been more neglected and there's been less funding for them and so on. That's basically why SENS Research Foundation was created, in order to kick start and get these things to catch up. And we've been very successful in that so that now there are a lot of our projects have been spun out into companies. These companies are obviously attracting investment from people who don't like giving money away to charities.
But, of course, the non-profit engine room of all of this is still necessary in order to do the projects that have not yet got that far. So, yes, I mean, there's a lot to be done. But a lot of it is certainly stuff that one's already heard of. Gene therapy as well as stem cell therapy. You know, immune therapies as well. And in terms of the way it's going to be delivered to the patient, it'll be just like today's medicine. You know, injections and oral administration and maybe the occasional transplant.
Lucy: What should we be investing in? So let's say you're a retail investor who's 45, 55. What should they be looking at, not only in terms of their own longevity but in terms of returns?
Dr de Grey: Cryonics and liquid nitrogen.
Dr de Grey: Yeah.
Lucy: Why's that?
Dr de Grey: Because as soon as this expectation that we're going to eliminate ageing fairly soon hits the streets, it's going to cause a complete explosion in the cryonics industry. People who are too old to survive long enough are going to want another chance and they're going to want to be cryo-preserved. And the capacity isn't there right now, but it could be.
Lucy: How legitimate is that sort of technology?
Dr de Grey: Oh, it's very legitimate. I mean, at the moment the technology for cryo-preserving people, or indeed even organs without damaging them, is not really there. A lot of the damage, in fact the vast majority of the damage that one gets just by freezing, per se, can be avoided by a technique called vitrification, which involves essentially infusing a rather elaborate cocktail of cryo-protectants that cause the freezing process not to actually do any crystallisation. So the body becomes basically an amorphous solid, a glass. That's why it's caused vitrification.
But even though that accounts for the vast majority of the damage, there's still too much damage. And so the people who have been cryo-preserved thus far, even with the highest quality, it's going to be touch and go whether we'll ever be able to bring them back. However, the damage that remains that is caused even when you do vitrification can also be avoided with new technology that's just coming along now. In fact, one of the spin-out companies from our foundation is really spearheading this.
And so I think it's quite likely that within a few years we will be in a situation where cryonics is very legitimate indeed. And moreover where we are able to bank donor organs from people who've died for transplantation into somebody who hasn't died yet or doesn't need them for another 10 years. Which will be very handy because at the moment huge numbers of people die on waiting lists as a result of the fact that the donor organ has to be immunocompatible with the recipient. And the recipient has to have died just now, nearby, so that the organ doesn't decay before it gets into the recipient.
Lucy: Yeah, I mean, you can see the immediate positive effects of that sort of thing. In terms of quality of life, this is the big thing. How many people do you think want to live that long?
Dr de Grey: I think having an opinion about how long you want to live is a dumb thing to have. You know, it's like having an opinion about what time you want to go to the toilet next Thursday. You might have an opinion about what time you expect to go to the toilet 'cause of habit. But want to, it makes no sense, right? You know you're going to have better information on the topic nearer the time that you're going to be able to act upon. I mean, it's exactly the same for how long one wants to live.
I have no idea whether I want to live to a hundred. I just know that I want to make the choice when I'm 99.
Lucy: Yeah, fair enough. That's actually one of the interesting things about these conferences and summits is that you hear a lot about longevity risk and people thinking, "Oh, so if I'm going to live to 87 then I want to have this amount of money. I don't want to spend this." I mean, it just seems like such a, I don't know, to me a really cold, analytical way of looking at it. I mean, it's the reality, it's the current reality, but just I find it really interesting that we can be so detached from this thing.
Dr de Grey: That's right. Especially since the calculations are all completely fanciful anyway because they assume the non-existence of things like automation and universal basic income and things like that which are coming anyway.
Lucy: I just have one more question and this is, I think, it's really hypothetical. But how do you see, I guess, just the concept of wealth changing in a world where we do live this much longer? Because the way we see it, we accrue it as we grow older, we spend it as we need it, we leave it behind when we die. And maybe we get a windfall when we're probably 50 these days 'cause everyone is living longer. How much is that going to change?
Dr de Grey: Well, sure, that's another of the aspects of life that's going to need completely restructuring. But so what, really? You know, it's a problem we'd like to have. All that really needs to happen is some way of ensuring that prosperity is reasonably equitable, reasonably egalitarian. And how that actually is done in terms of the specifics of who gets how much money from where, at what age, it's like that's kind of there are lots of ways to do that. It's just a question of different societies will do it in different ways.
Lucy: Do you think there'll be a point when we reach where we can't have any more kids? Like population is exploding as well.
Dr de Grey: Well, very doubtful. I mean, if you look at today's world, of course, we do have an overpopulation problem. Too much pollution causing climate change and so on. But we're fixing that already with renewable energy and artificial meat and desalination and so on. And that's happening even though people are not very good at actually caring about climate change. You know, it's happening just because technology is making renewable energy cheaper than fossil fuels.
So the result is going to be that the carrying capacity of the planet will rise really fast quite soon. Far faster than population could possibly increase, even if we completely eliminated all death today. You know, and people didn't have any further reduction in fertility rates. And people just forget that. It's embarrassing how people are so prone to look at a world in which something is different on the assumption that everything else is the same.
Lucy: I did say that was the last question, but I do have at least one more. What should individual people be doing to make this happen? I mean, as you said, no-one wants to think about dying. What can we do?
Dr de Grey: Oh, you should definitely give me large amounts of money because the research is not going fast enough. I mean, it is really quite painfully ghastly. The amount of money that we have at the foundation is just about $5 million per year. We spend it very efficiently. We've been able to do very impressive things with it.
But the fact is we could totally be going two or three times faster if we had another digit on that. Just one more digit. Just an eight digit sandwich, still a pitifully tiny fraction of the medical research budget of any major country.
Lucy: Look, that's everything that I wanted to ask you. Is there anything that you think that we haven't covered? Especially given, I suppose, where we are today, the Financial Services Forum.
Dr de Grey: You know, I'll obviously try and address as much as I can in my talk. But my essential feeling is that the financial services industry is really making me happy by taking an interest in this. It's very easy for the financial services industry to do essentially what the rest of the world does and just presume that things are going to change slowly and smoothly forever.
And, of course, predictions of how longevity will change have always been rather poor, but not anything like so poor as they're going to be. So the fact that I get invited, quite often actually, to speak to audiences like this is very heartening. It means that there's a good chance that these predictions will become a little bit more justified fairly soon.
Lucy: Yeah, it's interesting they must also be looking for a way for them to survive. Because I can't imagine the life insurance industry would be-
Dr de Grey: Well, I mean, it's all about knowing how to hedge, isn't it?
Dr de Grey: I mean, you can perfectly well hedge life insurance against longevity, insurance and annuities and so on, if you have a reasonably accurate forecast of what's actually going to happen. And, of course, you can buffer the inaccuracy in that forecast up to a point. But only up to a point.
Lucy: Thanks again for your time, Aubrey. This has been one of the most interesting chats I think Nest Egg has had in a while. And definitely a little bit outside of the usual sphere of ETFs and bonds. So, look, thanks again.
Dr de Grey: My pleasure.
Lucy: And enjoy your time in Sydney.
Dr de Grey: Thank you so much.