Last Wednesday, I landed in Berlin, Germany at around 12:30. About an hour later, I was briefly in Cafè Alex, right next to the tapering TV Tower, where I met some of my colleagues from LEAF—some of whom I had never seen in person before—as well as other volunteers and members of HEALES, our friend organization. We were all there to attend the Undoing Aging 2019 conference, which would take place over the course of the next three days, bringing together experts and researchers from all over the world to discuss the latest advances, network, and share views on the biology of aging.
Thanks to video calls, meeting people face-to-face whom you’d only known through the Internet isn’t all that strange, but meeting people whom you had only read about or seen on YouTube still feels a little unreal, especially if these people are celebrities in their own field. Shortly after leaving Cafè Alex, we headed to our hotel to check in; Steve Hill and his wife Fatima—whose help over the course of my stay has been invaluable—were talking to the receptionist while Elena Milova and I were waiting right behind them.
Elena and I were chatting about various things when a man who looked somewhat familiar walked through the doors; I wasn’t sure he was whom I thought he was, and as I glanced to Elena to ask for confirmation, I understood that he was indeed stem cell pioneer and AgeX CEO Mike West, who has been in the gerontology scene for quite a while now. We chatted for only a few minutes, and while I was initially a little nervous, I got over it quickly—he’s a giant of research, but a kind and amiable person like most people you meet, and the same is true of all the other researchers whom I had the pleasure to talk to during the last week.
After visiting our rooms and freshening up a little, we went to grab a bite, and at the restaurant, we ran into our president, Keith Comito, and Christie, another staff member, both of whom I’d never seen in person before. Back in the hotel, we started prepping up for the day ahead; Steve showed us the radios that we would use to keep in touch with each other in Umspannwerk Alexanderplatz, the large conference venue. Initially, I thought that going around with radios would be somewhat silly, as if we were pretending to be secret agents or something like that, but in retrospect, I don’t even want to know the amount of up-and-down and back-and-forth we’d have had to do without them, as the venue turned out to be absolutely packed.
In fact, the event was so popular that the organizers had to turn people down as they’d reached the maximum allowed capacity of the building—and even with the radios, chasing down people and finding interviewees was quite a challenge. (Another challenge was finding a quiet-enough place to interview people—there seems to be an undiscovered law of physics stating that, when you whip out a camera, an army of people will pop out of nowhere and march loudly across the room, no matter where you are.)
Other than the aforementioned Mike West, the lineup of speakers included many big names, including Judy Campisi, Vadim Gladyshev, Jerry Shay, Nir Barzilai, Kelsey Moody, Julie Andersen, and Ruby Yanru Chen-Tsai. Professor Campisi, an extremely gentle and friendly person, was my first interviewee, and I’m glad she was—starting with such a celebrity helped me get rid of all my fears and gain a lot more confidence in my (developing) interviewing skills.
As a matter of fact, interviewing kind of grew on me and became more enjoyable each time. (However, after the very last interview, I was very tired and happy to take a long break from it.) Everyone I asked said that the presentations were all top notch, but I can’t really say anything about them, given that I spent nearly every moment of my stay running after researchers who were being pulled left and right by people who needed to meet them for whatever reason—and even if I had had the time to sit down and listen to the talks, I’m still nowhere near knowledgeable enough to understand such advanced topics.
The atmosphere of the event was very much friendly and informal, with plenty of opportunities to join conversations with researchers and advocates during the breaks while having a bite or a drink; I met some of the amazing people whom I met back in November 2018 during EHA, and I was flattered to be recognized by some of them. To kick-start the last day, Aubrey de Grey showed a funny but painfully relevant clip featuring stand-up comedian Norm MacDonald, which you can find below, to remind us why it is important to pursue life extension, which are the very same reasons that justify the rest of medicine: to save lives and reduce suffering.
Even though I’d gotten used to asking people for interviews fairly quickly, it still felt funny to have breakfast every morning while Nir Barzilai was sitting with other researchers a few tables away, hearing the unmistakable voice of Aubrey de Grey as he entered the room, or knowing that I could easily bump into, say, MitoSENS lead Matthew O’Connor, as I walked around the hotel. (I actually didn’t bump into him, but I had more than one occasion to talk to him.) Speaking of MitoSENS, at the end of her talk, Dr. Amutha Boominathan mentioned the upcoming MitoSENS 2 campaign on Lifespan.io, which will be aimed at testing allotopic expression in mice, providing proof of concept that the technique can work in mammals; in other SENS news, during the conference, Aubrey de Grey announced the tenth anniversary of the SENS Research Foundation, and a shiny new website was recently launched in celebration.
Personally, I think the best part of Undoing Aging 2019 was the feeling of being together with so many like-minded people who all agree that aging can and should be defeated; they may all have different reasons to want to see the end of aging, and they may even have different opinions on how and when this will be accomplished, but they’re all working together, each in his or her own way, to achieve this common goal. It was heartening to see that they all agree that aging can be brought to its knees, even if they might disagree on methodologies and timeframes; their optimism is what we need to convince the public that a life without aging isn’t a pipedream anymore.