Back in Cambridge, within the cozy confines of
de Grey’s circle, not even friendly skepticism emerges to mar the mood. My second day in town, again at the Eagle, I meet Adelaide Carpenter, de Grey’s wife of 13 years, who is 19 years his senior. She is a friendly Yank, of all things, her pleasant features somewhat roughened by a lifetime of chain-smoking unfiltered cigarettes and a paucity of teeth, a cosmetic defect that seems not to trouble her or de Grey in the least. They are devoted to each other. The union goes back to her days as a tenured fruit-fly geneticist on sabbatical from the University of California at San Diego, looking for midcareer rejuvenation at Cambridge. She didn’t find that, but, arriving at a party thrown by a grad student, she did find de Grey. “I was immediately accosted by this handsome young gentleman who demanded that I â€justify my existence,’” she recalls. (“I was even more of an arrogant bastard back then,” de Grey chimes in.) A few pints later that evening, they danced, retired to a bedroom, and have been inseparable ever since.
De Grey became the most passionately sponge-like student any biology professor is likely to have. Adelaide stayed on at Cambridge, contentedly working below her rsum, currently as a postdoc in the genetics department. Over the course of the next two years, de Grey would hit his own career wall in computer science, failing to bring to fruition an entrepreneurial software venture. So he was more than available in 1992 when Adelaide’s boss at the time needed someone versed in computers and biology to take over the running of a large database on fruit flies. That, as it turned out, was all the institutional purchase de Grey needed to launch his career as longevity theorist without (conventional) portfolio.
Here at the Eagle, de Grey is consuming another liquid lunch. He says his more typical afternoon repast consists of “a couple Mars bars, crisps and sandwiches” (though one anagram of his name, he notes, is “Ready Beer Guy”). The de Grey diet does not seem ideal for a man who’s planning on inhabiting his corporeal being for several millennia. But that’s the beauty, I guess, of the bioengineering approach—no need for undue discipline or willpower to keep our bodies healthy, when the right cellular interventions can repair any insult.
The meal over, our band of four strikes out on a walking tour of the Cambridge campus: de Grey, Adelaide, myself, and Ben Zealley, a 19-year-old first-year biology student and de Grey protg who, with characteristic earnestness, is attempting to launch an undergraduate longevity society. We enter the courtyard of Trinity Hall, de Grey’s alma mater, where an ancient guard inquires whether we have the proper ID. “Aubrey, he’s asking you to justify your existence,” Adelaide says. Our next stop, the Great Court of Trinity College, is even grander; it’s where, in 1927, future Olympic hero David George Burghley made university history (and provided grist for the movie Chariots of Fire) by sprinting 400 yards around the cobblestoned rectangle before the last of the 24 chimes of the Trinity clock had sounded. By the time de Grey was a Cambridge undergrad in the early 1980s, standards had slackened a bit. “I was once induced to do the Great Court run at midnight, after a party, with no clothes on,” he recalls. “I got more than two thirds of the way around, which wasn’t too bad a showing. However, I did slip on some fairly nasty cobbles, and I got these massive black eyes, so for a while I was known as Aubrey Aubergine.”
Adelaide wanders off to her lab, and de Grey, Ben and I settle down among the buttercups on a cow-munched field beyond the university, whose flag-festooned battlements in the distance look like a Hollywood treatment of Camelot. We’re playing Othello, a Go-like board game—or rather, I am watching as de Grey makes mincemeat of his young acolyte. Ben, who is given to pronouncements like “I plan to be either the last generation to die or the first not to die,” takes it well. He and de Grey met through the Internet, both being devotees of the “transhumanist” Web sites and blogs that have recently flourished, especially in the U.K., sites with names such as Betterhumans and The Immortality Institute. Transhumanists are science (and science-fiction) enthusiasts entranced by the prospect that futuristic technology will allow us to modify our bodies—wings, anyone? infrared vision?—and also to live a really, really long time (if not in our own bodies, then in robotic ones governed by our own downloaded brains). Most any gerontologist of repute would dive under the desk if a transhumanist came calling, but de Grey enjoys passing between the worlds of the professional scientist and the amateur crank.
In due course, de Grey takes over the crucial corner positions on the Othello board (“I’m doing something really evil,” he chortles). In the meantime 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.)