Why so much hostility towards SENS?

You probably are not aware that, earlier this month, there was a bit of a Facebook flamewar between a few SENS opposers and some life-extensionists, some (or even all, I don’t know) of whom were SENS supporters.

The flamewar was started by Jason Pontin, the editor-in-chief of MIT Technology Review, who posted on his own Facebook wall a link to an article on Nature claiming that human lifespan has an upper limit past which one cannot go.  Other articles have been written in response to it—for example, this and this—expressing scepticism on the validity of the research  mentioned in the original article. As it was pointed out, it is quite obvious that human lifespan has an upper limit, but this doesn’t mean that we can’t devise medical interventions to greatly extend our lifespans. We know that humans tend get too sick and die after a certain age; if this wasn’t the case, there would be no reason for anti-ageing research to exist. In this sense, the article on Nature was basically saying that water is wet.

Anyway, this post isn’t about the controversy stirred up by the article on Nature. I said Pontin started the flamewar, and you might be wondering how so. Well, the thing is, the post he made on his wall was public, and he tagged Aubrey de Grey in it, saying verbatim


(Note that Pontin’s accusations are nonsense, for the same reasons I was explaining above: If Aubrey de Grey disputed the ‘dark truth’ of our limited lifespan, he would not have devised SENS in the first place.)

As a side note, this is the same Pontin who in 2005 threw the MIT challenge to prove that ‘SENS is so wrong that it is not worthy of learned debate’—challenge which he lost. Tagging people just to publicly insult them is silly enough, especially for a person in Pontin’s position, but the actual flamewar was even worse;  while childish behaviour was exhibited by at least some members of both parties involved, I must say that Pontin and those who sided with him cut an extremely poor figure and came across as high-school bullies at best. I’m not going to delve deeper into the details of it; if you think you can stomach it, you can go through the flamewar yourself and see how a bunch of grown-ups spent several hours (if not longer) throwing poo at each other via the Internet. (To my shame, I must admit I also wrote a comment or two, but thankfully I was too late for the party to be dragged deeper into it.)

But this post isn’t about the flamewar either; this was just a necessary preamble. This incident got me thinking. Why does SENS face such a fierce opposition? Why all these clearly emotional, gut-driven reactions? Forget Pontin: He’s probably still bitter about the lost challenge, and if you read his comments it’s quite clear he probably has unresolved Aubrey-issues from school. A lot of other people over the years have raged against SENS and labelled it as quack science, a fraud, nonsense, and what you have, while having no evidence that this was the case. Sure, SENS is not fully established science yet, and who knows, maybe it will never be; we don’t know for a fact. But isn’t this case with tons of other research projects? Isn’t the very purpose of research to establish what works and what doesn’t? If SENS critics are so sure that SENS will never work, they really don’t need to bother throwing challenges to disprove it and attacking it so ferociously. They could just sit back and watch as SRF prove themselves wrong through their own research. On top of that, even if SENS were wrong, all the data coming from their work will certainly prove itself invaluable for future research endeavours. Win-win.

Personally, I came to the conclusion that what caused SENS to be so unpopular (at least initially) amongst the experts of the field might be its clearly stated goal of curing ageing. Biogerontologists are not immune to the pro-ageing trance by default; also, as far as I know, at the time when Aubrey de Grey first introduced SENS to the world he was practically unknown and quite new on the scene. To top it all, he was from a different field. I can see how other experts would be rather pissed at an outsider who comes out of nowhere and claims he’s got the solution to a problem they mostly weren’t even trying to solve. Maybe SENS wouldn’t have faced any opposition if it had kept a low profile and disguised itself as mere research-for-the-sake-of-research, as it was customary in the field of gerontology back in the day.

On the other hand, people like David Sinclair and Bill Andrews too are set on bringing ageing under medical control, and to the best of my knowledge, they don’t face nearly the same opposition as SENS does. Maybe it’s because they followed a more traditional career path than Aubrey de Grey. Maybe their approaches are more orthodox, or maybe SENS has more media exposure and thus is more likely to be criticised. Maybe it’s because of Aubrey’s bold claim that the first person to reach 1000 years of age has already been born[1]. I don’t know for a fact why SENS faces such fierce criticism. All I know is that, quite likely, if Aubrey de Grey hadn’t been shouting from the rooftops for the past 16 years that we can and should cure ageing, this tremendous problem wouldn’t be receiving nearly as much attention as it does today.


1. People generally don’t get this one right. He does not say that we will soon develop therapies that will make us live 1000 years. That doesn’t even make sense in the context of SENS, which is a panel of therapies that would need to be periodically reapplied. What Aubrey says is that we’ll probably get around 30 extra years of healthy life with the first round of SENS; during this time, perfected versions of the same therapies are likely to have been developed, granting even more extra years of healthy living, and so on. This concept is known as longevity escape velocity.

I don’t like this one tiny bit.

I’m not a biologist, you probably know that. I’m thinking about getting a degree in biology, but presently I have no competence to say what makes sense and what does not, biologically speaking. All I say on this website about what may or may not cure ageing is the word of experts of the field, which I merely repeat in a different fashion.

However, having studied natural sciences and having been around on the planet for long enough, I’ve learned to be skeptical about solutions that seem too easy. Especially when the silver bullet seems to have been discovered much too suddenly.

As you probably remember, BioViva has recently experimented a type of gene therapy against ageing on its own CEO Liz Parrish. The aim of the treatment was to lengthen her telomeres, and according to preliminary data, it worked. I care to emphasise the fact that this experiment had a sample size of one.

Dr. Bill Andrews, founder of Sierra Sciences and discoverer of telomerase, the enzyme used by cells to lenghten their own telomeres, has always been dead set on curing ageing—a very noble goal. Thing is, Sierra Sciences and BioViva have now teamed up and apparently launched a company called BioViva Fiji, unsurprisingly located on the homonymous island. They’re building a clinic where this treatment can be administered to arguably rich clients. The reason Fiji was chosen as the location of this clinic is that the Fiji equivalent of FDA seems to have much less strict regulations.

In a video that is not so new any more (I am a slow poster), Dr. Andrews announced the creation of BioViva Fiji and made some pretty bold statements, such as a cure for ageing to be expected “really, really soon.”

You certainly know how much I wish for ageing to be brought under medical control, so you would think I should be excited at the news. I’m not. Why?

This is sketchy as fuck. Bold claims about curing ageing—something most people on the planet probably still think to be nonsense—a private, expensive clinic on the other side of the world where regulations don’t matter as much as setting up medical businesses, and a miracle treatment coming from an experiment with sample size ONE that hasn’t even been fully monitored yet. I’m betting you anything most people’s scam indicator would go through the roof, irrespective of how effective the treatment actually is. This is the kind of stuff that gives the field a bad reputation, and if BioViva were to be wrong or if nasty side effects were to arise as a consequence of the treatment, shit would hit the fan for BioViva, and I fear the shockwave would be felt throughout the entire anti-ageing research field.

It seems awfully simple. Andrews seem to think telomerase/gene therapy is the silver bullet that will fully cure ageing, and while, I repeat, I am not qualified to say he’s wrong, it seems too damn easy. All age-related diseases would boil down to your telomeres getting too short? Is he saying that other age-related damange, like the seven categories of damage that the SENS platform is supposed to fix, are not really relevant? Or can they too be fixed with a shot of telomerase? (I hope he’s not saying that about cancer, because cancer may have 99 problems, but telomerase ain’t one.)

I’m sorry, but I don’t like this. It doesn’t come across as respectable scientists pushing research foward, but rather like a group of a bit too enthusiastic people who think they’ve already solved the general case of a problem because they have got a particular case sort of maybe working. I may be a boring traditionalist, but I still prefer the SENS approach, and I’m not talking only about their approach to defeating ageing, but also to doing science.

Ageing, meet Liz Parrish

Elizabeth Parrish, CEO of BioViva Sciences, gives an interesting talk on how her company plans to put an end to ageing: engineered genomics. I seem to understand that there were other talks at the same event, I think at least one held by Bill Andrews and possibly Aubrey de Grey; I will post them if I find them.