If de Grey has an idol, it’s the biologist Mike West, founder of Advanced Cell Technology, who for the past decade has led the anti-aging phalanx of the biotech revolution by pursuing, among other avenues, the promise of embryonic stem cells. These, the first cells that result after an egg starts to divide, ultimately give rise to the many varieties of specialized cells in the body. “I do see myself as following in Mike’s footsteps,” de Grey says, hitting an unusually humble-sounding note. Never mind that comparing himself to an experimentalist like West is a bit of a stretch, de Grey being in the enviable position of never needing to make anything work in the lab or to answer to academic supervisors or stockholders. “All I have to do is make a cogent case, and people say, â€That would be a cool experiment,’” he says. “And I don’t have to worry about offending someone who is going to be reviewing my next grant proposal, because I don’t write grant proposals. So I piss people off whenever
I like, and there is, more or less, no reason why I shouldn’t.”
De Grey dreamed up the Methuselah Mouse prizes to light a fire under the skeptics. A decade or two from now, he says, we will be able to take a middle-aged mouse, one that’s two years old, and by tinkering with its damage-control systems, triple its remaining life span, enabling it to live for five years instead of three. (One lab mouse, 11C of Southern Illinois University, was nearly five when it died in 2003; it is the yardstick for de Grey’s overall-longevity prize. But 11C came from a genetically modified strain of mice; when you tinker with a normal mouse starting at middle age, each extra day is harder won.) Perhaps another decade or so after this mouse-rejuvenation goal is met—though de Grey acknowledges that this next step could take as long as 100 years—we will be able to do the same for humans: to wit, engineer a 60-year-old to live to be 120 instead of the usual 80, every person a Jeanne-Louise Calment, the most reliably documented world’s oldest human, who died in France in 1997 at the age of 122. At that point, de Grey declares, “we’re done,” because from there, incremental gains in biological life extension should arrive quickly enough to stave off death indefinitely. A key tool in this endeavor will be huge research farms of apes, which, since they age at roughly twice the rate of humans, will serve as primate “canaries in the coal mine,” hitting super-old age and its attendant problems increasingly far ahead of humans, giving us time, de Grey argues, to defuse the toughest problems before they hit us.
It’s a big job, but we’ve got to start somewhere. What de Grey is pushing Archer and others to pursue is an anti-aging solution he’s dubbed “lysosomal enhancement” [see graphic, opposite page]. Lysosomes, the garbage compactors in cells, fail over time, allowing potentially dangerous waste to accumulate. De Grey wants to lend them a hand by identifying waste-chewing enzymes in soil bacteria, isolating the bacterial genes responsible for producing those enzymes, and then tinkering with those genes so that they’ll perform a similarly hygienic function inside the human lysosome. Delivery of the new genes into our bodies might be accomplished by piggybacking them onto viruses, a technique known as gene therapy that scientists have been trying to make work for more than a decade.
Long shot though it may be, the lysosome helper is, de Grey says, “the crazy idea that I’ve had the least difficulty in persuading people might actually work.” Last summer, the National Institute on Aging subsidized a de Greyâ€organized workshop in Bethesda, Maryland, to brainstorm the approach. “Aubrey is not an alien to us,” says David Finkelstein, administrator of the NIA’s Biology of Aging program. “With his ideas, there are an awful lot of what-ifs, but that’s what science is about.”
For de Grey’s overall plan to succeed, however, all his projected fixes would have to work; woe be to us if he has overlooked some essential aging process and there are eight deadly sins, not seven. He allows that this is a possibility, but he considers the fact that scientists haven’t discovered any relevant biochemical processes in the past 20 years excellent circumstantial evidence that his list is complete. As for his attempt to extrapolate accurate life-extension timescales from the current state of lab research, well, that’s another matter. “It’s like asking me what the stock market will look like in 25 years,” Campisi says. “Who knows?” One recalls highly rational predictions that failed to anticipate the underlying variables changing—for instance, the prediction made in the 1890s that within half a century the streets of London would be buried under nine feet of horse manure owing to the steady rise in horse-carriage traffic.
Not long after my visit with de Grey, I attend a conference at the New York Academy of Sciences in Manhattan, where a handful of the nation’s most eminent gerontologists had been corralled by the American Federation for Aging Research to make pretty before the media. After the presentation, I conduct my own symposium-within-a-symposium in the Upper East Side courtyard of the NYAS on the always loaded subject of Aubrey de Grey. I show the list of Seven Deadly Sins to Len Hayflick, who throws up his hands at what he regards as de Grey’s faux precision. “I’ve seen lists like these going back for decades,” he says. “It’s just unrealistic.” I compare projected-life-span figures with Jay Olshansky, a demographer and aging expert at the University of Illinois. “To get that figure of 5,000 years,” he says, “you would have to have some people living to 10,000 to 15,000 years to make up for anyone dying in the first few years of life.” Aubrey accepts that in his work, I say. “And that’s the only place it’s going to happen: in Aubrey’s work” is the quick rejoinder. Mind you, these people like de Grey. “He’s a super guy,” Hayflick says. “We get along famously,” echoes Olshansky.