Could this man help us to live to 1000?
Controversial scientist Aubrey de Grey says some people alive now could live for a millennium. But is he a visionary or merely a showman, writes CLAIRE O'CONNELL
FANCY TRYING to blow out 1,000 candles on your birthday cake? It sounds far-fetched, but there are people alive now who will live for a millennium and perhaps more, according to Dr Aubrey de Grey.
With his long hair and a beard that Rasputin would envy, de Grey cuts a distinctive, articulate and sometimes controversial figure on the media circuit as he explains and defends research into “rejuvenation biotechnologies”.
“Rather than simply slowing ageing down, which is what most people have been focused on, we are interested in reversing ageing,” he explains. “So taking people who are already in middle age or older and [getting them back to] the same state of health as a young adult.”
He will be in Dublin tomorrow to talk about how he thinks science will achieve that.
Originally a computer scientist trained at the University of Cambridge, his interest in ageing was sparked by conversations with his wife, a biologist.
De Grey (48) switched his research focus a decade ago and is now chief science officer at the Sens Foundation, a charity set up to look at aspects of ageing and rejuvenation by working university researchers or at its centre in California.
So how do you reverse ageing? The basis of de Grey’s argument is that our metabolism, that complex biochemical orchestra that keeps our bodies running, has side effects that cause damage in the long term.
“The big insight that governs our work is that we can classify these many different types of damage into just seven major categories,” he says. “And within each category, there is a particular approach that seems promising to not simply slow it down but repair the damage, so we have less of it than we had before the therapy was started.”
Those approaches include: replacing useful cells that have disappeared; removing cells that are no longer useful or whose presence is causing harm; destroying junk that builds up inside or outside cells; breaking up rigid connections that cause tissue stiffness; and overcoming problems such as cancer or cell damage that are associated with mutations in DNA.
The research is at a basic stage, and therapies for use on humans are decades away, according to de Grey. He considers the theme that looks to tackle junk that accumulates between cells to be the most advanced.
That’s an area being looked at by Dr Brian O’Nuallain, who has just left University College Dublin for Harvard Medical School, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital. He is starting work on a Sens-funded project into an age-associated condition called senile systemic amyloidosis.
One aim is to develop an antibody that will pick up when a protein called transthyretin clumps abnormally in heart tissue, which can lead to organ failure. Being able to diagnose this early would maximise the beneficial effects of future therapies for the incurable condition, says O’Nuallain. This area of research has raised eyebrows, and O’Nuallain is also sceptical.
“However I presume that future advances in medical research over the next few decades should prolong our lives by a decade,” he says.
But what about centuries? De Grey has drawn sharp criticism in the past and, while he says his work in bringing biologists and gerontologists together has lessened the scepticism, it hasn’t entirely gone away.
“This idea of living to 1,000 is a bit unlikely,” says immunologist Prof Luke O’Neill, professor of biochemistry at Trinity College Dublin, though he notes that the prospect of using pharmaceuticals to extend lifespan has been shown in mice, where an immune suppressant drug can support them living for longer.
“The question then becomes what is the limit for human life. There could be a natural biological limit and no matter what you do, you might never get beyond that unless, of course, you replace each part of the body as it ages with a new part.”
Prof Des O’Neill, a consultant physician in geriatric and stroke medicine at Tallaght Hospital, describes de Grey as being seen more as a showman than a visionary, and says that his narrative could contribute to ageism.
Other experts point to the challenges of rejuvenation; question the biological value of vastly increased lifespans; and express concern over the potential ethical issues involved in bringing such therapies through human clinical trials if carried out in poorly regulated developing countries.
De Grey argues for the need to plough ahead with the science. “We are wasting time and we are costing lives by not prioritising this research,” he says.
Aubrey de Grey is speaking as part of the HUMAN+ exhibition at the Science Gallery, Trinity College Dublin, tomorrow at 6pm. Tickets are available from sciencegallery.com.