Fantasy or fountain of youth?

Jeremy Foster

Most scientists who are optimistic about future breakthroughs in aging intervention research say someday it may be possible to extend the human lifespan by a few decades. One man goes centuries further, claiming that soon we may not only live to a thousand years of age and beyond, but will live those years in the fountain of youth.

That man is Aubrey de Grey, Ph.D., a 42-year-old self-taught theoretical biogerontologist with a background in engineering from the University of Cambridge, and he claims that the first person to live to be 1,000 may be under the age of 50 years old right now.

Speaking at conferences in Europe, the U.S. and China, and interviewing with major media outlets such as “60 Minutes,” the New York Times, and Popular Science, De Grey has sent ripples, and sometimes waves, through the technology and scientific community by claiming that he has developed an age-reversal model that may feasibly work in as little as a decade in mice and 20 to 30 years in humans.

He calls this biomedical model SENS, short for Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence, a long-winded name that sounds as complicated as the science behind it promises to be, and it hypothesizes that aging can be reversed by treating, as opposed to stopping, the cellular and molecular damage that is inevitably caused by our basic metabolic functions.

De Grey insists that once the mean age of mice has been increased in laboratories using his model, the floodgate of public funding will barge open, as people en masse demand that SENS be refined for humans. For the skeptics, de Grey simply points to the billions of dollars consumers spend annually on “anti-aging” interventions.

Initially, SENS therapy will be costly, intrusive and risky, De Grey said, but as the science behind it is refined, getting your extra 30 years of life will be as simple and perfunctory as getting the oil changed on your vehicle.

But for De Grey, life-extension is not a perfunctory matter, but one of “saving lives,” he says with the immutable zeal of a missionary.

“What is saving a life?” he asked an audience at a 2006 technology conference in Oxford, England. “It is giving someone the opportunity to live a fulfilling life longer than they would otherwise have had a chance to live.”

De Grey, a former artificial intelligence researcher for Sinclair Research Lrd., a consumer electronics company in Cambridge, England, says it was his wife of 17 years, a geneticist, who kindled his mission to “save lives.”

“Over dinner conversations with her, I became increasingly aware that aging was not a major topic of interest among biologists,” he said. “And I began to ask why, and I didn’t think much of the reasons. Too hard, too boring. So eventually I decided I’d better switch fields and work on it myself.”

From 1992 to 1995, de Grey pored over biogerontology books and articles, bouncing his ideas off of other biogerontologists and vice versa, until finally publishing his first contribution to the field in a paper titled “The Mitochondrial Free Radical Theory of Aging.” The paper argued that obviating damage to mitochondria might be a significant strategy for life extension. In 2000, he submitted the paper to the biology department at Cambridge University, for which he was awarded a doctorate in biology.

In 2003, he co-founded the Methuselah Foundation, a nonprofit organization that galvanizes and accelerates research for aging interventions using modern biomedical technologies. Today, the foundation has raised close to $4.1 million in donations, $3 million of which came from Peter A. Thiel, co-founder and former CEO of the online payments system PayPal, in September 2006.

The foundation has also raised an additional $4.4 million for a “Methuselah Mouse Prize,” which will be awarded to a research team that uses the principles of SENS to develop the longest living mice.

“I’m convinced that de Grey’s strategy for achieving life extension is the best that has been proposed,” said Mark Hamalainen, Ph.D. biochemistry student at Cambridge University, who was awarded an annual grant of $70,000 by the Methuselah Foundation to conduct anti-aging research. “We have a comprehensive list of the types of age-associated damage that kill people in a normal life span, and a corresponding list of therapies for treating each type, which are widely supported by experts in the relevant fields,” he said.

But many leading scientists in the field of aging have publicly rebuked de Grey’s theories. One of them is his friend Dr. S. Jay Olshansky, a leading proponent of anti-aging research and a bio-gerontologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“Aubrey claims that he knows what specifically causes aging, and he would be the first person in the history of the planet to know that,” Olshansky said. “There are numerous theories of why aging occurs. And they may all be true at one level or another.

“It’s not going to be a simple fix, such as identifying seven things and fixing them by inserting a key into a lock and turning it. It’s not going to be that simple. So whenever someone comes along and says, ‘I know,’ then you’re going to run into skepticism,” Olshansky said.

Many of SENS’ hypothesized fixes for aging depend on biomedical solutions that do not exist yet. Of the seven causes of aging that SENS proposes, one of the main ones is cellular loss. De Grey proposes to stimulate these lost cells with growth factors, or replacing them with engineered stem cells. These solutions are, however, purely theoretical, Olshansky says.

But such criticism does not faze de Grey, who says that such objections are more problematic for the scientist than the engineer.

“Scientists find things out for the sake of finding things out,” de Grey said. “Engineers find things out in order to solve some problem so they are always looking for ways to minimize how much they need to know to implement a solution or ways to sidestep their own ignorance. This is antithetical to the scientist’s raison d’etre, so scientists constantly overlook it.”

Still, many find such sidestepping of ignorance unacceptable in the world of science or technology.

“The ideas in SENS are highly provisional and some of his plans to treat cells within the body is interesting but completely speculative,” said Jason Pontin, the editor in chief and publisher of MIT’s Technology Review.

Pontin publicly criticized de Grey after publishing a highly critical article in his magazine in February 2005 titled, “Do You Want to Live Forever?” by Sherwin B. Nuland, a professor of clinical surgery at Yale University.

Shortly after, Pontin wrote an editor’s letter titled “Against Transcendence,” which called de Grey a “troll” and concluded “immortality might be OK for de Grey, but an entire world of the same superagenarians thinking the same kinds of thoughts forever would be terrible.”

Immediately, scores of de Grey supporters castigated Pontin for resorting to ad hominem attacks, and in response he decided to put together a scientific challenge that would award any repu unworthy of learned debate.”

In July 2005, Technology Review announced that of the five submissions they received, none met the conditions of the prize competition.

“Until de Grey develops a proper research project, forms it and actually produces data that is testable,” Pontin said. “I say all of these ideas are more or less as interesting suggestions.”

Arthur Caplan, Ph.D., director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, said he has not heard any coherent ethical objections to anti-aging interventions.

“It makes sense to try and combat senescence since it leads to dysfunction and death,” he said, “which for me makes the process of aging very much akin to a disease.” De Grey goes further, calling aging a “horror” and said there is more dignity to be killed at age 1,000 in a car accident than dying of one of the many complications of old a

It is questionable whether de Grey’s ideas will ever catch on. Caplan himself said that while he supports anti-aging research, he thinks de Grey’s claims are “pie in the sky.”

But the Cambridge theorist is not perturbed by the opposition: “It’s what I’ve called ‘Gandhi stage 3,'” de Grey said, “following Gandhi’s very famous quote about radical ideas: ‘First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then they say they were with you all along’ or something like that,” he said.