If a tall, gaunt man with a ruddy 2-foot beard were to loom over you in a bar and claim he was a scientist who could help you live forever, you’d probably check his breath. Aubrey de Grey has that effect on people. But he also has the effect of reanimating the largely ignored science of why we die.
De Grey has a Ph.D. in biology from Cambridge, where he works in the genetics department. He claims that within two decades, scientific breakthroughs could begin extending human life spans fast enough and far enough that people alive today could survive indefinitely. To that end, he organizes conferences on aging research and publishes a scientific journal, Rejuvenation Research. Last week, his Methuselah Mousecompetition topped a million dollars in jackpot money with a pledge from genetic research mogul William Haseltine. The mouse prize is loosely modeled on the X Prize for space tourism, and it aims to motivate researchers to come up with proven ways to extend the life of a standard lab mouse. The first award, given in November, went to a researcher who documented that a dietetic regimen of calorie restriction induces genetic changes in mice. They not only live longer, but retain their youthful vigor.
Whether de Grey is a genius or a kook—MIT’s no-nonsense Technology Review argued the latter, in a cover story and a bitchy editorial in February—he’s the best thing to happen to aging research in a decade, since Cynthia Kenyon proved that tweaking the genes of roundworms made them live twice as long as usual. The field was once so unpopular that practitioners in the 1970s dubbed aging “the A-word” and said their work was about “longevity” instead.
De Grey’s premise seems sober enough: Aging, he says, is a set of mechanical processes that happen inside and around our cells, causing them to eventually die one by one. Were we to cure every disease that afflicts older people, human beings would still drop dead after 120 years or so. That’s because while our cells rejuvenate themselves by dividing, they seem programmed to divide some predetermined number of times and then stop. This is the “ Hayflick limit,” discovered in 1961 by University of California researcher Leonard Hayflick. Other age-related problems—degenerating components and accumulating junk—seem to cause normal cellular machinery to quit (even as mutant cancer cells keep right on growing). All of this is standard aging theory; now de Grey thinks he has identified the seven deadly processes that make aging lethal. He argues that if researchers would quit fooling around and focus on fixing those seven problems, through gene therapy or other methods, they could stop the runaway train of aging. Let others figure out how the locomotive works. De Grey just wants to find the brake lever.
Before de Grey got interested in longevity, he was a computer programmer, a capacity in which his beard seems pretty normal. After getting a computer science degree from Cambridge in 1985, he married a geneticist from the university in 1991 and then joined the school’s genetics department as a computer guy, setting up the team’s database of information on Drosophila, the standard fruit fly used by geneticists. Taking an interest in his wife’s field, de Grey began poring over the existing literature on gerontology. The more he read, the more he became convinced that aging researchers were missing the big picture. “There weren’t enough people drawing ideas together from different parts of the field and trying to synthesize things,” he later told a reporter. The field was “monopolized by experimentalists working rather in isolation from each other. And so I thought I might be able to make a contribution.”
De Grey’s first contribution was a surprise hit. He published a paper in 1997 that suggested an alternate interpretation of why mitochondria (the energy-producing units inside cells) deteriorate with age. Cambridge allowed him to submit the book he subsequently wrote on the topic for a doctoral degree in biology, eschewing any class and lab requirements. These days, de Grey’s part-time day job is still as a “computer associate,” according to the university’s Web site. But de Grey says he spends 15 hours a week managing the Drosophila database and the rest of his time on self-directed aging research.
There are plenty of hackers-turned-biologists whose contributions are pushing their adopted field, and whose cross-disciplinary work is heralded. MIT’s computer science department, for example, designs custom DNA for the school’s synthetic biology project. But unlike the MIT guys, de Grey has never hacked cells in a bio lab himself or conducted any experiments to test his theories. If you’re not using the scientific method to test your hypotheses before publishing them, his critics say, you’re just doing theory. You’re not a biologist—you’re an enthusiast.
“Aubrey has made no original contributions to this field,” Leonard Hayflick (he of the Hayflick limit) wrote in an e-mail. “He is a fly geneticist who, without training in the field of the biology of aging, is in my view, misguided in his belief that the aging process will be capable of manipulation in the next decade or two. This belief has been 20 years in the future for the last 3,500 years!” Other researchers worry that lay people may mistake de Grey’s theories for scientific fact, allowing less scrupulous prophets of immortality to prey on them. Just look at calorie restriction, which lots of fad diets and books promote. It won de Grey’s first prize payout because it works for mice but has never been clinically proven to work in humans.
The other three top researchers I called about de Grey wouldn’t speak for the record. They didn’t want to endorse his work, but they also didn’t want to denounce him. As Jay Olshansky, a University of Illinois scientist, explained to Technology Review, “We need him. He challenges us and makes us expand our way of thinking.” Hayflick himself gripes that the National Institute on Aging spends lots of money trying to cure Alzheimer’s but little studying why we’ll still die even if we cure that and every other disease. The point of the M Prize is to bring the kind of funding and excitement to aging research that the X Prize brought back to space travel after NASA’s disasters. And two years after the Columbia disintegrated over Texas, Virgin Galactic is gearing up to launch eager tourists into suborbital flight. OK, so de Grey isn’t doing hard science himself. His theories may all prove wrong when tested. And in any case, I’m sure I’ll be long gone before anyone cures old age. But who says an enthusiast can’t contribute? If someone, someday, gets to live a lot longer than we will because Aubrey de Grey brought more buzz to the A-word, it doesn’t matter if he grows his beard to his knees.