I like going to first time conferences. Like a newborn animal struggling to stand up, they wobble as they learn who they are. This opens up unique opportunities.
Last week the SENS Foundation put on the first ever Rejuvenation Biotechnology conference in Santa Clara. (“Rejuvenation” might be misleading. This is a conference on aging, not on spa treatments.) The SENS Foundation operates on the “belief that a world free of age-related disease is possible,” and the conference is a way to build a community around that belief.
This grand vision comes in no small part from the foundation’s Chief Science Officer, Aubrey de Grey, who challenged the world back in 2007 with his book Ending Aging. Aubrey has been working on the development of what he calls “Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence” or SENS (negligible senescence = insignificant aging) for some years now.
“What is aging?” Aubrey asks as the conference gets underway. “Aging is simply the accumulation of damage as a side effect of being alive.”
Aubrey groups molecular and cellular damage into seven areas. And says that SENS is dedicated to finding therapies designed to repair this damage. The goal of the new conference is to connect SENS and their network of researchers with those in industry.
Aubrey de Grey at Rejuvenation Biotechnology 2014
Dressed in jeans and a plain shirt, Aubrey bounces on and off stage like a teenager, always at the ready with a smart quip. His speech is rapid fire and rhythmic with a tight British accent. I run into him at the bar after lunch.
“You’re ideas are gaining hold,” I observe.
“Yes, I’m not as far out there as I used to be. Not because I changed, but the community has come to me,” he says, stroking his long beard.
Aubrey has been organizing a biennial SENS conference in Cambridge, England, for some years now that has been more research focused. Then a couple years ago, he and others set up a 501(c)(3) here in Mountain View, California where they operate out of 6,000 square feet. Michael Kope is the President and co-founder of the foundation. His first question to Aubrey when they made plans for the foundation was what would be the IP strategy. Michael confirms that the new conference is industrially focused and designed to expand the reach of the foundation into the world of business. They're after products just like Apple or Tesla. Aubrey says his main message is that there's plenty of research about the aging process out there waiting for application.
I tell Michael that de Grey strikes me as a philosopher only to be quickly corrected. Michael says de Grey would much prefer ‘visionary’ in the mold of Peter Diamandis, the co-founder with Craig Venter of Human Longevity Inc.
Peter Diamandis at Rejuvenation Biotechnology 2014
And Diamandis showed on the final day to give a keynote. His basic premise is that the pace of change on planet Earth is accelerating at an exponential speed. Beginning with a picture of a meadow under cloudy skies, Diamandis says that humans in prehistoric times didn’t have to change much. As a species we could carry on for many generations without much new going on. Cut to the present time. Change is happening at hyper speed. If a company was started in the 1920’s and it was successful, it could expect to be on the S & P for over 70 years. A company started today isn’t likely to last more than 15 years on the index, Diamandis says. Disruptive technologies are appearing more frequently. And there are six D’s we can watch for:
Everything is becoming DIGITIZED. For the first few years, such as when the digital camera went from 0.01 to 1 megapixels, the progress from the digitalization is DECEPTIVE. We are unaware until there is a dramatic change. DISRUPTION happens. Products then become DEMATERIALIZED then DEMONETIZED then DEMOCRATIZED.
After seeing one example after the other of this process, from the digital camera--which Diamandis takes time to note was both developed and then shelved by KODAK--to robotics, to the media, it is hard to disagree with Diamandis. The speed of change does seem to be going on a curve toward infinity.
“This is so today,” Diamandis would say with each new technology he referenced.
So what does this all have to do with aging, or slowing it down?
Enter the Diamandis Effect: the rush of noticable energy and inspiration that comes over an audience witnessing his presentations. At this conference, that audience was a motley collection of stem cell researchers, gerontologists, Alzheimer’s researchers, policy wonks, entrepreneurs, investors, and students. After Diamandis’ speech, a panel convened on stage where the moderator instructed the audience to come to the mic with ideas rather than questions. Lines behind both mics filled up immediately.
One of the panelists gave a short but excellent presentation on how to go about the challenges of FDA regulation. However the talk seemed to bring to a screeching halt Diamandis’ rocket-like energy. (And, indeed, he had showed video of his space flight back in ’04.) The juxtaposition generated creativity. Several ideas came up for improving regulation. One audience member, quick on his feet to the mic, said we should automate regulation. Interesting. How would that work? The idea morphed a few minutes later in the mind of another audience member with the suggestion for a kind of Turbo Tax for FDA regulation. I can see why some of the top companies are hiring the founder of the X Prize to speak.
A conference focused on the business of ending aging could easily go off the rails and into La La Land. But this conference stayed grounded. Formed mainly around panels, the questions and discussions were specific and practical.
George Church speaking at Rejuvenation Biotechnology 2014
George Church gave the opening keynote. Using the strategy of understatement and a presentation of some of his current work, George has his own way of moving a crowd. He stuck to two promising technologies. The first was in-situ flouresence-based sequencing, or looking at RNA molecules in a three dimensional environment. George claims that work done so far in this area is giving much more relevant data than the standard two dimensional sequencing.
Will we now see a rush in the world of NGS to this three dimensional approach?
The other technology George is obviously great guns over is the new CRISPR/Cas9 DNA editing technique. George said that he is involved in several research projects to use CRISPR as a viral therapeutic. He showed a slide with a list of protective gene variants for a number of age related diseases, including Alzheimer’s, cancer, Type 2 diabetes, and coronary disease, among others.
“I’d like to sign up to have my genome edited to include these protective genes,” he provoked the audience.
George urged the researchers in the crowd to look at the outliers in their data, the far ends of the bell curve. There one finds a small number of genes which have much more effect on phenotype than the genes at the center of the curve.
Stem cell therapy was a major theme at the conference. Jeff Carp was there from Harvard Medical School offering a summary of his work. He says that we’ll be using stem cells in four ways:
- To fill vacancies
- To replace damaged cells
- To change tissues
- To create new niches
Stephen Minger is the Chief Scientist of Cellular Sciences at GE.
“GE is now a cell therapy company,” he said, reiterating how far the field has come. According to Stephen, there are currently over 4,000 listed clinical trials for regenerative medicine.
The conference was not only grounded in real science and real discussions about gaining regulatory approval and wooing investors. There were also ethical questions about the expanding socio-economic gap that new treatments are bringing. As a society how are we going to increase access to elite medicine for more than just the very rich?
Caleb Finch is a researcher at USC. He’s thought about the implications of lifespan continuing to increase, particularly in regards to mental health.
“If we reach ninety, the majority of us will be demented,” he said. “And so we must prioritize Alzheimer’s research.”
After 60 years old, dementia doubles every five years compared to aging, which doubles every eight years, Finch says. We will go crazy faster than we will age.
For his book When I’m 164, science journalist, David Ewing Duncan, surveyed over 30,000 people in many diverse audiences and found that a majority of people don’t want to live longer.
Absent from the talks I attended was any mention of happiness. Except for the keynote by Diamandis. He says that he’s launched a new prize to come up with a device to measure our happiness. Would this device change the majority's opinion about living longer?
As with all futurist conferences, there was lots of talk of change. Diamandis presented change as inevitable, and left out any discussion of humans as a species directing or controlling the pace of change. I asked Diamandis if he’d thought much about how we know when to change or not to change. Surely we do have some control. Isn’t that what regulation is about?
Still, can we speed up our ability to decide whether a change is good or not in order to better handle the accelerating pace of change?
“It’s a good question. And one I don’t have the answer to,” Diamandis said.