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.
“This is an extraordinarily radical idea,” de Grey allows. “But when we’re living a long time, the short-term anti-cancer stuff we do now isn’t going to work.” When he has presented the idea at scientific conferences, it’s been met with something less than the tentative interest his lysosomal-enhancement concept receives. “But I haven’t been thrown out of any rooms yet,” he says.
By now de Grey has both trounced Ben at Othello and cured cancer (in
theory), and time has flown in the luminous English springtime. I notice that it’s 7:10 p.m. “F***in’ hell!” de Grey exclaims, and furiously pulls together his things. “I’m 10 minutes late for dinner, and I’m never late for dinner!” He takes off for home and Adelaide through the high grass, his long arms and legs flapping, looking for all the world like a startled, aristocratic gazelle.
My last day in Cambridge, I am being ferried by de Grey up the River Cam, which, as he talks indefatigably about the relative imminence of near-immortality, seems more and more like the river of time. We rented our flat-bottomed punt at Scudamore’s Punting Co., Est. 1910, and de Grey, with remarkable felicity, is now poling the boat through the congested stretch of river that runs by the university. Soon, though, we’re in Elysian countryside, skimming by lush, overhanging willow trees and other riverine flora that de Grey, no all-purpose biologist, can’t name. He cuts a remarkable figure, one hand on the punter’s pole, another wrapped around a tallboy of John Smith ale, his voluminous beard flowing behind his shoulders in the mild breeze like a scarf. De Grey never successfully learned to drive a car, too intimidated by the speed and potential lethality. But in his first year at university, he discovered he was a punting natural, and even made good money one summer taking tourists up and down the Cam in his second-
hand boat, tossing off outrageous lies about the local history and architecture.
As de Grey handles the boat work, my exercise, purely intellectual, is to imagine the world he’s advocating. Even if research science disappoints him and we blunder our way to a measly life span of 150 years sometime in the next century—something that’s not guaranteed but isn’t a bad bet either—society as we know it will be turned on its head. And if de Grey turns out to be closer to the mark, some obvious elephant-in-the-room questions present themselves.
For one thing, who is going to have access to fabulously pricey life-extension technology? Will the rich get older as well as richer? As the two of us slip through a landscape that looks as if it’s been lifted from a Jane Austen novel, de Grey conjures up a rather unpersuasive argument to the effect that life-extension technology will diffuse globally, rapidly and
fairly, because the developed world, the haves, will be too frightened of 9/11-style resentment from the have-nots. And where will the money for this democratic approach to long-livedness come from? The longevity dividend, de Grey says, that will accrue when people, indefinitely vigorous, don’t retire from the workforce
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.