DNAdigest interviews Aubrey de Grey from SENS Research Foundation
Photo credit: https://goo.gl/images/0ZE1pV
Dr. Aubrey de Grey is a biomedical gerontologist based in Mountain View, California, USA, and is the Chief Science Officer of SENS Research Foundation, a California-based biomedical research charity that performs and funds laboratory research dedicated to combating the aging process. He is also Editor-in-Chief of Rejuvenation Research, the world’s highest-impact peer-reviewed journal focused on intervention in aging. He received his BA in computer science and PhD in biology from the University of Cambridge.
His research interests encompass the characterisation of all the accumulating and eventually pathogenic molecular and cellular side-effects of metabolism (“damage”) that constitute mammalian aging and the design of interventions to repair and/or obviate that damage. Dr. de Grey is a Fellow of both the Gerontological Society of America and the American Aging Association, and sits on the editorial and scientific advisory boards of numerous journals and organisations. He is a highly sought-after speaker who gives 40-50 invited talks per year at scientific conferences, universities, companies in areas ranging from pharma to life insurance, and to the public.
Dr. de Grey will be speaking at the BioData West Congress in San Francisco on 26-27 April 2017.
1. What are you working on currently and what are you going to talk about at the Congress?
We always work on a wide range of projects, since our strategy for defeating aging is very much a divide-and-conquer one. Our work ranges across a wide variety of applications of cutting-edge biotechnology, including stem cells, gene therapy, immunotherapy and more. At the Congress I will focus on ways in which we can use big data to identify new approaches to improving the health of the elderly; two topics I will discuss will be (a) the application of metagenomics to identifying new enzymes that we can add to human cells, typically to help us break down toxins, and (b) the identification of very rare but beneficial genetic variants that slow down the accumulation of various types of damage.
2. To which age did you manage to extend the life of mice so far?
We haven’t yet broken any records. This is another consequence of the divide-and-conquer nature of our approach: while it will be productive in the long run, as we develop good solutions for each of the various subproblems, we don’t expect much benefit until we have made at least some progress on each one of them.
3. Do you think you follow a standard scientific career path or is your journey significantly different from others’?
Oh, very different (switching careers completely in my late 20s; not getting standard experimental training) – and that was on purpose. If one follows the same path as others, one is almost certain to end up doing the same kind of work as others, which means one makes very little difference – one’s discoveries will be ones that someone else would have made very soon afterwards if one had not existed. By doing things differently, I have instead maximised my ability to complement the expertise and achievements of others.
4. What would be your advice to young people who want to do research (but are not yet there)?
That depends why the person wants to do research. If someone is driven by the research goal itself, i.e. by the love of finding things out, then my advice would be to identify a research area that is well-established but relatively unfashionable – there will be lots to discover, but not many people doing the discovering, so one will have lots of success and probably not too much trouble getting funded. But if one is driven by the humanitarian potential of the research (which is very much the case for me), there’s no contest: get into aging research. But be aware that some things that are called “aging research” are basically useless for addressing aging in the clinic in the future, and vice versa – so, email me at sens.org for personal advice.
5. What would be your advice to young researchers (who are already doing research)?
My main advice would be to identify research directions that maximise one’s resilience when things go badly. Everyone in research goes through periods of frustration where nothing goes right for a while, and the hardest thing is to maintain both self-belief and objectivity at those times. Mostly, the people who withstand those periods the best are those who are the most inspired by the particular field they’re working in.
P.S. from the editor: there are multiple videos of Dr. de Grey on the Internet, but I personally like this one.