Aubrey de Grey, the British biomedical gerontologist, maintains that cheating death is no longer a fantasy; this makes him one of the boldest scientists of his kind. He’s adamant that since we know the causes of the human body’s decline and demise, it’s only a matter of time, technology, and resources before he succeeds in reifying his theory.
De Grey compares the human body to a car that incurs wear and tear over the years. Most of this it can withstand. However, once a certain threshold is reached, the sustainability of the body-machine declines irrevocably. The result is damage to our metabolism. This damage starts affecting us early in our lifetime, but is not, strictly speaking, a part of metabolism itself. De Grey’s approach to the matter is rooted in gerontology, the scientific study of old age – and his area of expertise. According to him, we can arrest the process of aging through “engineering.”
De Grey’s theory is gaining currency. Indeed, his scientific institute, SENS Research Foundation, has spawned a number of similar outfits, with a lot of the investment coming from private sources. Additionally, his institute’s research seems to be encouraging “big pharmaceuticals” to pour more effort into turning a previously unthinkable goal, overcoming death, into a reality.
The seven deadly sins of biology
Ending Aging, published roughly a decade ago, he outlines the seven biological factors that cause aging – and which his institute, the aforementioned SENS Research Foundation, is trying to overcome:
1. Tissue made up of cells that cannot replace themselves, such as those in the brain and in the heart. De Grey proposes to resolve this problem either by encouraging cell division or by introducing new stem cells at timely intervals to replace the lost ones.
2. Unwanted cells that accumulate in the body, the main examples of which are fat cells that replace muscle and cause diseases, as well as senescent cells, which tend to lodge in the joints’ cartilage. De Grey’s planned course of action here is to generate immune bodies that attack these cells without affecting others that don’t share the same properties.
3. Cancer-causing cell mutations. These cells’ immortality is related to telomeres, which, unlike in normal cells, refuse to shorten. This can be treated by periodically substituting, every 10 years or so, the gene that produces telomerase – an enzyme that maintains and regenerates telomeres – with stem cells that don’t carry it.
4. Unwanted mitochondrial mutations. Mitochondria are responsible for creating energy for cellular activity and are known to carry DNA. However, when found outside the chromosomes of the nucleus, they have less protection and are more susceptible to mutations. De Grey’s idea is to copy all genes from mitochondrial DNA and then place them inside the nucleus, thus making them impervious to mutation.
5. Cells serving as chambers where complex “junk” lodges itself. This junk is the result of a cell’s breakdown of sizeable molecules. The junk tends to cause problems that manifest themselves as various diseases. De Grey suggests injecting into the body lysosomes with genes containing extra enzymes that can break down such junk. What kind of genes? Having observed that animal flesh buried in soil doesn’t further accumulate junk, de Grey proposes using adaptations of such soil bacteria.
6. Cells suspended in extracellular liquid that also tends to gather “junk.” Such junk is usually a form of protein, known as amyloid, that cannot currently be broken down. This can trigger certain types of brain disease. De Grey is trying to develop a vaccination which will introduce a substance into the immune system that would produce the cells needed to break down the junk.
7. The cross-linking of cells. When, during a lifetime, chemical reactions occur that alter the physical properties of molecules, cells may become cross-linked, reducing elasticity and increasing tissue thickness. This is one of the causes of high blood pressure. De Grey is intent on pinpointing chemicals that tear down these cross-links without impacting anything else.
Since the publication of de Grey’s Ending Again, scientific and technological progress has brought his team of experts closer to some of their goals. Indeed, de Grey has succeeded in untangling long-standing knots in at least two of the seven areas that pose complications. Two years ago, Science Magazine ran an article documenting progress when it comes to erasing wrinkles and hypertension, much of it due to de Grey’s endeavors. The other achievement, a method that allows for modified mitochondria DNA to be transferred into the nuclear DNA, was outlined in an article published last year.
Timeline for de Grey’s LEV
De Grey is looking to initiate the trickiest aspects of human testing in early 2021, following ongoing experiments carried out on mice. Easier testing, such as bespoke immunotherapy against the accumulation of amyloid in the brain and stem cell therapy, is already well underway. What is particularly difficult to account for is that, over the course of a lifetime, the body is subject to different kinds of damage; as a result, separate methods of treatment have to be developed. And some of these treatments counteract one another.
Once these complications are ironed out, de Grey believes that the first batch of “patients” will require periodic treatment in order to live the desired 1,000 years. Meanwhile, the research and technology needed to further enhance and elongate people’s lives will continue to improve. De Grey terms this, somewhat humorously, “Longevity Escape Velocity” (LEV).
If de Grey’s estimations are on point, those in their middle age today have a good chance of benefiting from the results of this research. In two decades, those who are 70 or 80 years old might be able to, in a sense, turn the clock back so that they’re 30 and 40 again. Then, as new milestones in research are reached and new results achieved, incremental treatment will allow the recipients to stay on that LEV wave.
De Grey also believes that there’s a 50 percent chance that all-important research on mice will yield tangible results within the next five to six years (10 to 15 years at most, should delays impinge on matters). This means that, should his roadmap prove accurate, the first person to reach the ripe age of 1,000 is already alive now!
According to de Grey, the chief cultural hurdle to clear assumes the form of a general mindset that he terms the “pro-aging trance.” The “pro-aging trance” causes some of us to adopt a fatalistic and defeatist approach towards the idea of indefinite life longevity.
The people who buy into this trance, as de Grey has it, refuse to acknowledge aging as an actual disease, seeing it instead as an inevitable part of the flow of life. De Grey asks that we consider longevity a side-effect of good health. In this light, he seeks to resolve the problem of a lack of longevity by allowing people to remain healthy and youthful regardless of how long ago they were born.
De Grey believes that once people start seeing actual results in the laboratory, with old mice receiving a new lease on life, their perceptions will change. Quite a lot of progress has already been made in the way of rejuvenation biotechnology – not just in de Grey’s SENS labs, but in the scientific community at large. This may well generate interest among potential investors, thereby enabling further research and testing.
Should we be hopeful?
Reaction to Aubrey de Grey’s propositions has been decidedly mixed. Is he a true scientific messiah on the verge of unraveling the biggest mystery of life, or is he delusional? Can he really make good on his promise to devise the medical means of rejuvenation, and in so doing, cure us of old age and death just like we cure ourselves of other ailments?
This writer, for one, is hopeful. While all we’ve got thus far are – admittedly – no more than enticing theories, de Grey is an innovator with a strong scientific pedigree who inspires many people to muse, “What if he’s right?” And to those who still refuse to acknowledge the plausibility of his arguments, he says that they are free to choose debilitating old age and death if that’s what they want. However, he quickly adds, they have no right to thwart people who wish to explore the seductive possibility of achieving everlasting and healthy life.