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Making sense of SENS

by Harriet Easton Published on 22nd Sep 2015

by Harriet Easton Published on 22nd September 2015


Can we look to Aubrey de Grey's SENS Research Foundation for the next big breakthrough in aging research? Harriet Easton takes a look at the life extension industry's most 'popular' yet divisive organisation.

The SENS Research Foundation: a California-based research institution with the goal of reversing the aging process through ‘engineered negligible senescence’, is without doubt the most popular organisation within the field of aging research - at least amongst members of the life extension public.

Boasting tens of thousands of likes across its various social media channels, and spearheaded by the charismatic Dr Aubrey de Grey -  who himself enjoys an almost cult-like status among longevity advocates worldwide, it is perhaps no wonder that prominent figures such as Peter Thiel and Jason Hope have felt compelled to make substantial donations toward the company’s efforts, as well as providing ongoing financial support.

Yet, some members of the scientific community are not quite so adoring. In 2005, Dr. Richard Miller, a Professor of Pathology at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Gerontology, penned a rebuttal to a paper written by Dr de Grey, which was signed by twenty-eight other scientists working in the field of aging.The strongly worded critique asserted that: “A research programme based around the SENS agenda... is so far from plausible that it commands no respect at all from within the scientific community." Similarly, another prominent critic of SENS, Prof. Colin Blakemore, a Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Oxford, went so far as to call de Grey’s views as foolish” and “naive”, and his proposed remedies for ageing as “dangerous snake oil”.. during an Oxford debate in 2012.

Ten years on, Miller remains unconvinced of the legitimacy of the SRF’s activities: "De Grey does not do any research, so far as I know...I have never seen him present any data or research findings. He does not have a lab; he theorizes. What de Grey does is not science - it's advertising..."

But are these criticisms fair? Or, is it the sheer unconventionality of the SENS method and its chief proponent, Aubrey de Grey, which is really rattling the cages of the scientific community?     
  
“commands no respect at all from within the scientific community."

De Grey’s unconventional scientific career path could partially explain why he, and his research organisation, have struggled to gain respect from the scientific community . In an interview with The Insight this year, he claimed that he “accidentally learned a lot of biology” after he married his biologist wife. This inspired him to give up on his career as a software engineer and teach himself biology, by reading textbooks or academic journals and attending conferences on the subject of gerontology. After just two months of observing the subject, he wrote a groundbreaking paper about the accumulation of mutations in the mitochondria, which challenged the widely held, yet experimentally unproven, belief that these mutations were to blame for cellular decay. Such was the quality of his well-reasoned theories, that the University of Cambridge chose to award him a PhD in biology in 2000, in spite of the fact that he had never done any lab work.  
   

Upon this basis, many gerontologists thought that de Grey was unqualified to suggest that they were going about their work in completely the wrong way; to argue for the need “to change the way the world researches and treats age-related disease.” Rather than slowing it down, de Grey proposed to repair the damage caused by aging and  ultimately reverse the process.

However, whilst it is clear that some scientific experts are still sceptical about the feasibility of the SENS method, let’s not forget the prize fund set up jointly by de Grey and the editor of the MIT Technology Review, Jason Pontin in 2005. As of yet, no one has been able to claim the $20,000 reward for submitting 'an intellectually serious argument about why the work undertaken by SENS is so wrong and thus unworthy of learned debate'.

“De Grey does not do any research, so far as I know..."

De Grey has structured the SRF’s unusual research strategy around a theory of ‘seven deadly things’. Over the past century, scientists have identified seven different categories into which all of the various molecular and cellular changes in the body that cause damage can be placed, namely: ‘junk outside cells’ (extracellular aggregates); ‘junk inside cells’ (intracellular aggregates); death-resistant cells; cell loss and tissue atrophy; cancerous cells; mitochondrial mutations; and protein crosslinks (extracellular matrix stiffening). In order to cure all age-related diseases, scientists will need to figure out how to repair the damage causedby each one of these ‘deadly things’.

De Grey did admit in his Insight interview that some areas of SENS’ work “are not really our work in the sense that we don't actually do much of them.” Currently, SRF is grappling with just two out of the seven deadly things at its own research centre; with intramural projects on the repair of mitochondrial mutations, and to discover how cancer cells make use of a process known as the alternative lengthening of telomeres (ALT).

For the remaining five, SRF is funding extramural research projects being conducted by its partners: the University of Texas, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Rice University, the Buck Institute of Aging, the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the Babraham Institute, the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, the University of California, Yale University and the University of Oxford.

“I have never seen him present any data or research findings.”

Such a comment raises an important question as to whether SENS has generated any breakthroughs. De Grey is keen to stress that “there's always progress being made here and there; there's always good news everywhere.” In other words, the progress of the SRF’s research is slow but steady.

However, de Grey has also made it clear that a true breakthrough could still be some years away. He envisages reaching a ‘tipping point’ within the next ten years - “a point where we have mice in the laboratory and we extend their lives by a sufficient magnitude and by appropriate means.” Having achieved “robust mouse-rejuvenation”, it will be “only a matter of time before we bring ageing under comprehensive medical control for human beings as well.”

So yes, it is true that the SRF has not yet presented any breakthroughs. However, it is fallacious to claim that the organisation has not presented any data or research findings. Miller clearly failed to take a look at the publications section of the SENS website, which includes an impressive list of articles that have been published in scientific journals.

 “What de Grey does is not science - it's advertising…”

Scientific research is just one of the three strategies deployed by the SRF in its mission “to change the way the world researches and treats age-related disease.” - the other two being education and outreach. It is these latter two strategies to which the criticism about ‘advertising’ is the most applicable.  

The proclaimed mission of SRF’s education section is to make the field of regenerative medicine comprehensible to everyone. They want to train scientists, doctors and policy makers to work in the field of rejuvenation biotechnology, as well as provide the public with a better understanding of the kind of research that is being conducted. In their opinion, pharmaceutical companies and regulatory agencies would be motivated to alter their approach to treating the diseases of aging if they felt that their activities were being scrutinised by a well-informed public.   

SRF Education runs programmes which provide opportunities for science students to get involved in research projects taking place the labs of experts in the field of regenerative medicine. The two main programs targeted at students are the Summer Scholars Programme and the SRF Literature Review Program. Meanwhile, for the benefit of the general public, SRF has created a series of educational videos, summarising its main areas of research.  

Once they have a better understanding of the topic, the SRF’s outreach programme to mobilises the public’s support in the fight against age-related diseases.

The foundation hosts an annual Rejuvenation Biotechnology Conference; allowing those with an interest in life extension research to deepen their understanding of the field, form collaborations and engage in cross-disciplinary modes of research. In addition, the Celebrity Reimagine Aging Campaign was launched 2012 in order to change the way people think about aging, by asking prominent actors, musicians and other celebrities to provide their thoughts on the topic.

Given that the ‘Take Action’ page on the outreach section of the SRF website describes making a donation as ‘the best thing which can be done to support its work,’ it seems that the SRF’s ‘advertising’, in the form of its outreach and education programmes, and transparency in general, are strongly influenced by financial considerations. The hope is that people will be more likely to make a donation if they can see exactly how their money is being spent.

In fact, SENS is the only major research organisation in the field of healthy life extension which relies on charitable donations to partially fund its work. This means that it has to operate on completely different terms to the more traditional scientific research organisations, such as the deeply mysterious, yet privately funded, Calico. This particular organisation has little motivation to keep the public informed of its goings-on, since it is not reliant upon them for charitable donations. Instead of an outreach programme, Calico has employed a Vice President for Business Development, who is ‘responsible for supporting the company’s growth through partnerships and collaborations’ (read: ‘responsible for securing  multi-million-dollar investments’).   

SENS and SENSibility

The SRF is, essentially, an unconventionally-financed scientific research organisation, whose founder has an unconventional scientific background, and which advocates an unconventional approach to fighting age-related disease. This makes it an easy target for criticism from the rest of the scientific community. And, objectively speaking, it is possible to see where some of the critics of the SRF and de Grey get their ammunition from. The foundation is indeed undertaking a form of ‘advertising’ with its outreach and education programmes. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing. It has certainly done a lot to raise the profile of rejuvenating biotechnology; to persuade increasing numbers of people that this is a legitimate area of scientific research and not the stuff of science fiction.  

Whilst the organisation is currently one of the leaders of the healthy life extension movement, there is a risk that it could lose its edge in the future if it is unable to attract the same amount of funding that its competitors receive. Thiel and Hope’s contributions seem positively frugal in comparison to some of the investments being poured into Calico. For example, in 2014 Calico and AbbVie agreed to co-invest up to $1.5 billion in anti-aging research. In this respect, the SRF’s status as a registered charity could potentially have a crucial impact. The pockets of the general public may well not be deep enough to enable the SRF to take its research to the next level.

Furthermore the allegedly slow progress of SENS research could partially be attributed to financial issues. In another recent interview de Grey stated: “We could be going three times faster if we had the funding that we needed, and that means that an awful lot of lives are being lost... The budget that SENS currently has is around $5 million per year and I reckon that we would very realistically be in a position where the money wasn't limiting if we had only one more on that."

All in all, the lifespan of SENS Research Foundation has yet to be determined.