Aubrey de Grey has been on my crank radar for many years as an amorphous fuzzy electronic blob meandering about in the distance. He’s an immortality “researcher” who makes extravagant claims that newspapers love and promote. For instance, he says that the first person who will live to be 1,000 years old has already been born. Cool. Except that he has no evidence for this, it’s based entirely on unwarranted extrapolation of his exceedingly optimistic view of scientific progress.
For instance, his big idea is that aging is caused by free radical damage by the activity of mitochondria. His solution is to move mitochondrial genes from the organelle to the nucleus, which makes no sense — those reactions are essential to the metabolism of the cell, they have to occur no matter where in the cell that it happens, and we have mitochondria as distributed ‘power plants’ with increased surface area (most of these reactions occur on membranes), so how does centralizing everything limit the deleterious effects of essential energy-producing reactions? The virtue of this scheme seems to be entirely about enhancing his ability to babble sciencey sounding words to venture capitalists like Peter Thiel. I am all for bilking Thiel out of every penny he owns, but the rest of us should be smarter than that.
Furthermore, it’s one thing to make grand promises with technobabble, but has he done anything with the idea? He made a bet over 20 years ago that someone (not him, he wouldn’t know how) would translocate 13 mitochondrial genes to the nucleus, with all the imaginary benefits that would bestow, by 2005. Didn’t happen. Isn’t going to happen. Every cell and molecular biologist is going to look askance at such a silly idea. It’s just more empty, hypothetical promises.
Did you know he was going to cure cancer? This is from an old article in 2005 — I guess he was leaping from his mitochondrial hypothesis, which didn’t pan out, to a new hypothesis about telomeres. The telomere hypothesis has also not panned out; I wonder what new flaky idea he’s telling audiences of rich old people, but unfortunately I don’t care enough to try and find out, although I do know for sure that people are still getting cancer.
…he tells us of his plan to combat cancer, perhaps the most pernicious of the Seven Deadly Sins. The chink in cancer’s armor, de Grey believes, is the telomeres, strands of DNA at the ends of our chromosomes that must be maintained in order for a cell to continue to divide. When scientists started intensively investigating telomeres in the 1990s, the buzz went as follows: If we could turn on the enzyme telomerase, which maintains the telomeres, thereby keeping them, and cell division, going indefinitely, was this not the molecular fountain of youth? It was not. Researchers have since concluded that short, unrepaired telomeres don’t impose an absolute limit on human life. Our bodies have considerable cell reserves, and some of the most crucial types of cells, in the brain and heart, divide rarely or not at all. Cancer cells, however, do require well-
maintained telomeres if they are to keep lethally multiplying, which is why cancer is most commonly found in the oft-dividing cells of the gut, the reproductive system, the skin and the blood, cells that are actively producing telomerase. (It’s also why Mike West and others are pursuing anti-cancer drugs based on telomerase.)
De Grey, as is his wont, takes the strategy a few steps further, even if the end result bears little resemblance to medical reality as we know it. He has devised a plan to make people essentially immune to cancer. Stem cells from the cancer-prone organ systems would be removed and, in a process not yet developed, reproduced in the lab after they had been genetically modified to turn off their production of telomerase. The stem cells would then be reintroduced into the body, but not before they had been genetically modified a second time to make them more resistant to cancer-fighting chemotherapy drugs. So now people could be bombarded with ultrapowerful doses of chemo to kill any potential cancers, and their newly modified stem cells would shake off the insult. Over time, as people returned to the doctor for periodic stem cell “reseedings” (necessary because without telomerase, cells won’t divide normally), their cells would become progressively less capable of letting cancers grow.
Got that? Once upon a time, people speculated that the key to immortality was switching on telomerase, which is normally inactive in all somatic cells. Then it was pointed out that switching on telomerase is a common mutation in cancers, a prerequisite to indulging in wild, frantic reproduction unchecked (hmm, maybe there’s a reason telomerase genes are inactive in healthy cells). So de Grey proposes deleting telomerase genes altogether from somatic cells, which seems to me a counter-intuitive idea from a guy who wants to keep healthy cells reproducing forever, because cells would eventually lose telomeres and die, but he has a magic solution. We should 1) extract all the stem cells from cancer-prone tissues (basically, everything), a process we can’t do. Then we should 2) delete telomerase from all those cells, which is something we can sort of do, and then 3) load them up with shiny new genes that make them resistant to chemotherapy (it’s OK, these telomerase-deficient cells couldn’t possibly go cancerous, he thinks, while Ian Malcolm mutters “life finds a way” over in the corner), and 4) repopulate the patient’s organs with the stem cells (how? I don’t know), and 5) have the patients all come in periodically to repeat the process as their stem cells die off (dollar signs appear in the eyeballs of the venture capitalists).
This is ridiculous. Gene knock-outs are feasible and done fairly routinely on small sets of cells, but the rest is a pie-in-the-sky fantasy which almost certainly wouldn’t work, and which de Grey himself can’t do, and which isn’t being done by the institutes he is associated with, and which receive all that money from wealthy donors. It’s a spectacular con, pure high tech snake oil with an ever-shifting magic formula that he conjures up with the latest scientific buzzwords. He’s ready-made for TED talks.
Oh, yeah, he’s also a cryonics proponent.
I haven’t paid much attention to him, though, because he mainly seems to be bleeding rich vampires like Peter Thiel, who would be wasting their millions and billions anyway. He also has a seemingly harmless, idiosyncratic manner, again making him a perfect poster boy for TED talks, and who cares what those twits think? Except now he seems to have crossed the wrong entrepreneurs, who revealed some of the seediness of his personal attitudes, and he’s been put on indefinite leave for his behavior.
On Tuesday night, Laura Deming, the 27-year-old founder of the Longevity Fund, and Celine Halioua, the 26-year-old founder and CEO of Loyal, a biotech startup developing drugs to help dogs live longer, posted accounts on their blogs and to Twitter of experiences they had with de Grey as young scientists trying to gain a foothold in the field.
Ugh. Sorry, I already dislike these two for their petty silicon-valley-style startups and for being young and rich. I only say that to remove any idea that I’m prejudiced in their favor, because I’m not, but they didn’t deserve the treatment they got.
Here are the stories that are demolishing de Grey’s reputation.
Halioua, who had been an intern at SENS Research Foundation in 2016 and whose research as an undergraduate and graduate student had been funded by the organization, alleged that SENS executives exploited her youth and attractiveness to solicit funds from donors. Halioua described a dinner in which de Grey allegedly told her that she had a responsibility to have sex with the SENS donors in attendance so they would give money to the organization.
“I left that dinner sobbing,” she wrote. “It has taken me years to shake the deep-seated belief that I only got to where I am due to older men wanting to have sex with me.”
Do I believe her? I sure do. The entirety of de Grey’s career has been about milking money from donors, so the idea that he’d think pimping out his employees was a good plan fits my impression of his character. That is a deeply demeaning way to regard students.
Aubrey de Grey is 58. Leave the young women alone.
In her own post, Deming described an encounter she had a decade ago with de Grey, in which he told her over email that he had an “adventurous love life,” and expressed a suppressed desire to talk about it with her. Deming was 17 at the time, and had known de Grey since she was 14 and a precocious freshman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Deming said she dismissed the experience as a mistake on de Grey’s part. But in recent months, conversations with Halioua and others had convinced her the behavior was part of a serial pattern of predation on younger women. “I’m angry to realize that Aubrey inappropriately propositioned more than one woman over whom he was in a position of power, many in the community knew about it, and no one did anything,” she wrote.
Ick. Do not talk about your love life with 14-17 year old girls. Just don’t. Not ever.
But, the skeptical among you are saying, these are just two stories. De Grey denies them. Aren’t we just going on hearsay? I’d be more cautious about the allegations, but de Grey just had to open his big fat mouth and sound exactly like every other abuser.
Early Wednesday morning, de Grey addressed the allegations in a Facebook post. “Unsurprisingly, I deny these allegations,” he wrote. “What may be more surprising to you is this: my belief is that both Laura and Celine have been deceived into the view that I have done many things that I have in fact not done.”
In the post, De Grey said that the women’s descriptions of their personal experiences were “decidedly incomplete.” Deming “references an email I wrote — inadvisedly, for sure, and which I unreservedly regret — to her when she was 17, but she explicitly states that ‘I wrote it off as a mistake’ and that she only resurfaced it in the past few months at the instigation of others,” he wrote. “Celine references a dinner where she and I sat together, and accuses me of saying certain things that I utterly deny ever saying and that she implies I said when she was drunk. … It is instructive that the very next day she wrote to me without the faintest hint of ambivalence, asking for additional feedback on her presentation, and that every one of our exchanges, of which the most recent was less than a year ago, has been of similarly untarnished character.”
Oh god, what a crappy alibi. He’s accusing unnamed malignant individuals of brainwashing these women into saying things to do him harm. That sounds like projection to me. Of course he’s the center of the conspiracy against him, it’s not possible that these women could have independently decided to ruin him.
Then he dismisses his sexual email to an underage girl because she “wrote it off as a mistake”. Right. That’s what people do when they learn of things that make them uncomfortable, they try to rationalize it. This is mundane human behavior, it is not exculpatory at all — a 17 year old girl tried to make excuses for a man she admired doing a bad thing. It does not mean he didn’t do that bad thing. Calling Harvey Weinstein!
Most tone-deaf of all and so common there must be a psychological phenomenon named after it, he dismisses the other accusation because the woman was friendly afterwards. Sound familiar? Powerful influencer simply can’t believe that he could possibly have so much clout in his field that the people he oppresses might continue to ingratiate themselves with him. He can’t believe that the women he harasses would pull themselves together and try to cope with their harasser because he’s essential to their careers, therefore he thinks he must not have really harassed them.
Before, I would have said we should believe the women and investigate further, and in particular, we should see if there are other similar incidents in his history. After reading his rather arrogant reply, though, I’m just saying “fuck it, he’s guilty.” I don’t care what happens to another pseudo-scientific parasite and quack.
Uh-oh. I just read some of the comments by his defenders on Facebook.
I’ve known Aubrey for over a decade now and during all those times that we met I’ve never seen him behave inappropriately, says a man named Sven. That’s convincing: so an old man who hits on young women has never, ever been improper in the presence of his bros? Calling Lawrence Krauss to the witness stand.
This is just a couple of SJW’s trying to cancel a mid-aged well educated well earning white male, says Rudy, who goes on to say
Contemporary feminazi’s nowadays reduce any unsuccessful approach attempt or even a simple compliment, simply if unwanted, to sexual harrassment, or at least sexism. Wokistry judges quickly, on the spot, without process,goes public in stead of to court, and makes intention processes. I guess I’ll have to judge de Grey by the company he keeps, as well.
How comes 17 years old are not entitled to be solicited, but should instead be discriminated as a matter of principle?! This sounds pretty ageist to my ears. By the way, age of consent is civilised countries is 14. I could almost hear the phrase
It’s not pedophilia, it’s ephebophilia! quivering on his lips.
Looks like a witch hunt to me, says Kurt. Yeah, “witch hunt” gets thrown around a lot over there.
I once groped a girl in a nightclub without permission around 45 years ago, says Dirk. Two wrongs do make a right!
Does it really matter what one said or wrote many years ago? complains Valerija, one of the few women defending him. This was ten years ago, not that long, when the girl was 17 and de Grey was 48. I guess the rule is you can pursue under-age girls until you are 50, then you have to slow down.
This is a more typical response from one of the few women commenting:
I have never in my life read more automatic misogynistic responses to a post. You all are upchucking a huge, untapped (until now) volcano of hatred towards women in the worlds of science and finance. It doesn’t even matter now whether the women are telling the truth or not. The tone of the original post and the comments are revealing enough. I know this is not the popular response but that has not stopped me from being the voice of truth ever, so here I am. Pile it on, men (and a few women). That’s what you do best. #deplorable
The general consensus is that how dare these women hinder Aubrey de Grey’s progress towards eliminating aging. One problem with that perspective is that no, Aubrey de Grey has never and will never make a significant contribution in gerontology. He’s a hype train that has finally been derailed.