An article on the work and vision of biomedical gerontologist and longevity science advocate Aubrey de Grey was published last year in the May 2010 issue of GQ. Unfortunately, the GQ folk decided not to get around to reprinting the article online – which is irritating, to say the least. Why go to the trouble of producing something in the first place if you are just going to throw it away, never to be seen by the thousands who might read it in the years ahead?
Fortunately, a kind fellow at Reddit recently posted scans of the article to Flickr, and here it is: “Life Begins at 140.” Jump on in and read the piece before these vanish from the Flickr servers.
De Grey likes to compare the future of treating aging to the time line of human-powered flight. For millennia, man dreamed of flying. Nothing happened. Five hundred years ago, Leonardo da Vinci presented detailed drawings of flying machines. Nothing happened. Then, in a mad rush, we catapulted from the Wright brothers to Lindbergh to the Concorde to the space shuttle. Fewer than sixty years have passed since Watson and Crick – modern medicine’s Orville and Wilber – proposed the structure of DNA. Only seven years have passed since the Human Genome Project mapped our genetic sequence. Gene therapy wasn’t even theorized until the 1960s. In the past few years, it’s been used in major medical breakthroughs: It was used to cure squirrel monkeys of color blindness, and recently doctors in Paris used it to slow a fatal brain disease called X-linked adrenoleukodystrophy in young boys. What comes next, de Grey predicts, is a series of extraordinary medical progressions, each a further order of magnitude more sophisticated than anything available today.
It’s easy to poke fun at Aubrey de Grey and his quixotic ideas, but a couple of weeks in his presence made it obvious to me that he’s entirely serious about his quest. I don’t think he’s full of shit in the least. I have no idea if a single one of his seven steps will work, but I’m grateful for his crazy devotion. He says he never takes a day off, because he’s acutely aware that every day he’s delayed means another 100,000 humans will die. He’s not getting rich and isn’t driven by his own self-presevation. Rather he’s practically killing himself, it sometime seems, so that rest of us may have a chance to live. I, for one, deeply wish for his success. The truth is, I’d like to be young again. I’d like to be young for a thousand years.
And even if de Grey isn’t correct, there may be significant ancillary benefit to his ideas. So maybe we won’t live to be a thousand, but perhaps de Grey and his team will make a few smaller breakthroughs and we’ll get to 150. or perhaps his efforts will help cure Alzheimer’s disease. Or diabetes. Or cancer. If his insights help us live only five extra years, or just one year – or, hell, one month – isn’t that worth the three bucks he asks from every many, woman, and child in the United States? Maybe tossing a billion at de Grey isn’t a waste at all. Maybe, once you think about it, it’s an absolute bargain.
A bilion dollars will, in de Grey’s estimation, buy us a 50% chance of being able to rejuvenate aged mice – return them to a youthful state by repairing the known forms of cellular and biochemical damage that cause degenerative aging. This would involve something like $150 million spent over ten years on each of the strands of SENS, the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence: that money would be used to establish research centers, recruit scientific teams, and get the work done.
Some of these areas of research are closer to fruition than others. For example, the moving of vulnerable mitochondrial genes into the nucleus to protect them from damage: this has already been demonstrated for a couple of the thirteen genes than must be moved. Several research groups performing this work already exist – they would be happy to ramp up their efforts and expand if funded aggressively. Other areas, like the WILT approach to eliminating cancer, will need a great deal more toil and discovery to reach the stage of a satisfactory biotechnology and therapy.
A failure here means that it will take longer than ten years and more funding to achieving meaningful results. But I think that for most of the threads of SENS the estimate of $150 million and 10 years isn’t unreasonable for a crash course of scientific development spread across several labs – and nor is it unreasonable to expect real results at the end of that time.
Folk like you and I can help here and now by supporting the SENS Foundation – give money, or persuade other people to the same. It’s the most important line of scientific research that exists today, the one that will make the largest difference to your future – and the future of everyone you know.