UPDATED: Leading anti-aging researcher Aubrey de Grey accused of sexual harassment by two colleagues, including while one was a minor
Two women came forward with sexual harassment allegations against a prominent anti-aging researcher Tuesday evening, accusing the scientist of making inappropriate remarks while serving as their mentor as his organization looked the other way.
Aubrey de Grey, CSO of the SENS Research Foundation, is alleged to have engaged in predatory behavior toward Celine Halioua and Laura Deming, including while Deming was a minor. Halioua and Deming wrote about their experiences with de Grey on their Twitter accounts and personal websites, and asserted they fall into part of a larger pattern of harassment and toxicity surrounding de Grey and SENS.
“There was kind of a sexual undercurrent in everything that SENS did,” Halioua said in an interview Wednesday afternoon with Endpoints News. “As an intern, it was made clear that there was a ranking of the attractiveness of the interns, and I was one of the ‘hotter’ ones.”
She added, “I knew that Aubrey thought I was attractive, and that was made explicit.”
De Grey declined to comment beyond a lengthy Facebook denial posted early Wednesday morning. In an emailed statement, SENS said it placed de Grey on administrative leave soon after it learned of the allegations in late June.
Deming says she first came in contact with de Grey when she was around 14 years old. As an aspiring scientist, she emailed several prominent figures seeking advice for how to break into the field, and de Grey was among the recipients. He served as an informal mentor to her, and they reconnected later when he interviewed her for a fellowship program.
At the age of 17, Deming says de Grey sent her an inappropriate email from his work address, in which he detailed his “adventurous love life,” and admitted he had considered letting their conversations “stray in that direction.”
“I was 17, and I assumed that I had done something terribly wrong” by entering the field at such a young age, Deming said in an interview. In her post, she added that instances like these made her consider leaving the field on multiple occasions.
Four to five years later, Halioua says she was a SENS-funded student when de Grey made sexual remarks to her at a dinner with SENS executives and donors. She said de Grey “funneled me alcohol and hit on me the entire night,” and told her she had a “responsibility to have sex with the SENS donors in attendance so they would give money to him.”
Halioua had initially joined SENS as a freshman in college and says de Grey would discuss his sex life at work. In her post Tuesday night, Halioua further accused another unnamed executive of harassing her so severely she dropped out of her PhD program. She says her complaint spurred a legal investigation, which didn’t amount to much.
“It was just inappropriate behavior for months and months and months, both from a sexism standpoint and from a harassment standpoint,” she said of the unnamed executive Wednesday.
Both Halioua and Deming say they will no longer associate with de Grey or SENS in any capacity. Deming wrote she decided to come forward now because she does not have confidence SENS will act to prevent de Grey from harassing more women in the future.
“It might be an open secret in the longevity community that this is a problem, but kids on the internet don’t have access to that information, and Aubrey is still mentoring minors,” Deming wrote. “So, we’re making our experiences public.”
As part of de Grey’s lengthy Facebook denial, he contended Halioua and Deming have been “set up” by unnamed third parties. While de Grey claims there are no other accusers, he wrote: “I’m putting it out there right now: if other accusers come forward with supporting evidence, I will step aside a great deal faster than [New York Gov. Andrew] Cuomo just did.”
But within the denial, de Grey confirmed sending the lewd email to Deming while she was 17, an email he said he wrote “inadvisedly, for sure, and which I unreservedly regret.” He also denied making any of the alleged remarks to Halioua at the SENS donor dinner, saying following correspondences between him and the woman continued for years without issue.
No one who has met Celine would believe that she would ever lose control of how much she drinks, and most of her accusations concerning that dinner appear to be of other people, not of me. 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.
Though the allegations were publicized for the first time Tuesday, both Halioua and Deming noted that SENS launched an investigation into the matter earlier this year only after repeated complaints against de Grey. They claimed in their posts that other anonymous individuals had brought forth testimonies of physical sexual abuse to the SENS board against de Grey earlier in 2021, but didn’t act upon them.
In its emailed statement to Endpoints, SENS confirmed it hired an independent investigator to probe the incidents when it first learned of them in late June. According to SENS’ latest tax returns, the CSO was making just under $80,000 in 2018.
We are aware of the allegations against the Foundation’s Chief Science Officer raised by two members of our scientific community, and, when we first learned of the allegations in late June, we worked quickly to retain an independent investigator to investigate these concerns. We quickly placed the employee in question on administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigation. No other allegations were brought to SRF management.
We respect the integrity of this investigative process, and it would not be appropriate to speculate on the outcomes while the process remains ongoing. We can promise that we will take seriously the findings and, if appropriate, take decisive action.
Since SENS began its inquiry, the organization raised about $25 million aided by de Grey’s fundraising capabilities without disclosing the probe, Halioua and Deming wrote.
Reactions to the news poured in overnight on social media, with some on Twitter saying anyone who knows de Grey “knows this is true.” Others, such as industry figure and Insilico CEO Alex Zhavoronkov, jumped to his defense and lauded him for his role in support of women on Facebook, adding “in today’s transitionary period of female empowerment in academia, we need to support females even when they are wrong.”
He was on the board of my first start-up. One of my cofounders (male – went back to school for PhD) and I left because it was all TED talkery from his crowd.
This is much worse than the focus on sizzle over steak & generally off vibe I'd assessed there. https://t.co/3i0b8CgtBA
— elizabeth.ai (@eIizabethai) August 11, 2021
Anyone who knows him and the people around him knows this is true. More need to come forward and tell their story. https://t.co/c9YvJNB6QF
— PJ Manney — Phoenix Horizon trilogy complete! (@PJManney) August 11, 2021
I believe this woman. People have talked about Aubrey de Grey for years and the people “kept” in his home. I’m not surprised to see allegations about minors. The LA parties co-attended by Peter Nygard should be viewed critically in hindsight. Vitalik Buterin – what say you? https://t.co/vO1SQxNTq7
— Keri Kukral (@kerikukral) August 11, 2021
Knew this ages ago but was afraid to say anything. https://t.co/f6gKhI291C
— Rachel Haywire (@BeyondTheCenter) August 11, 2021
Zhavoronkov clarified his stance to Endpoints in an early Thursday email, writing he thinks that “the email Aubrey wrote to Laura 9 years ago was highly inappropriate. And he needs to apologize. As for Celine — there needs to be an investigation. And even if it does not prove that Aubrey is guilty, it is great that she came forward with this issue and we should ensure that there are policies in place to protect them.”
Zhavoronkov added he thought the story was a “big surprise” because he knew Halioua and Deming were both close with de Grey. He wrote that, until the investigation is over, moral support should be provided to “all parties.”
Halioua and Deming are both well-known figures in the anti-aging world. Halioua founded and serves as CEO of Loyal, a biotech developing drugs to extend the lifespan of dogs, while Deming is a venture capitalist who runs the Longevity Fund. Halioua had previously served as Deming’s chief of staff.
De Grey co-founded SENS — which stands for “strategies for engineered negligible senescence” — in March 2009 with the notion that one can slow or control the aging process by addressing key diseases and repairing the damage that builds up in our bodies over time. The foundation’s recent fundraiser was aimed at boosting research capabilities, and those who donated received a cryptocurrency called PulseChain in return.
De Grey gave an interview as CSO with the Daily Express, a UK tabloid, about the raise in July, even though, according to SENS’ statement, he was put on leave the month prior.
The University of Cambridge graduate isn’t just out to control aging. At de Grey’s other startup, Viento, he’s working on technology he thinks could enable “immediate, targeted manipulation of weather patterns” through the use of supercomputers and infrastructure like wind turbines.
For a short two years, de Grey was VP of new technology and discovery at Alameda, CA-based AgeX Therapeutics, which was founded in 2017 to unravel the “secrets of human aging.”
The accusations against de Grey come months after Eli Lilly ousted CFO Josh Smiley for sending “consensual but inappropriate” messages to employees. The exec was forced to forfeit $24 million in compensation as he walked out the door.
Back in March, Moncef Slaoui, former head of President Trump’s Operation Warp Speed, was booted from his roles at GSK’s Galvani, Vaxcyte, and Centessa after a probe substantiated sexual harassment allegations against him. GSK says he was accused of sexual harassment and inappropriate conduct toward one of its employees several years ago.
This article has been updated to include comment from Celine Halioua and Laura Deming in an interview on the afternoon of Aug. 11, as well as additional comment from Alex Zhavoronkov.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Halioua accused an unnamed SENS donor of harassing her so severely she dropped out of her PhD program. She had accused a SENS executive.