"One hundred and fifty thousand people die every day, and two-thirds of those die of aging in one way or the other," utters Aubrey de Grey between sips of English ale. "If I speed up the cure for aging by one day, then I've saved 100,000 people. Actually, I probably do that every week."
It is doubtful that Mr. de Grey is weary of reading articles that depict him as the classic casual-dressing, long-bearded, mad-scientist type. His persona is unashamedly atypical, as are his ideas about life, death, and aging. Aubrey de Grey is a biogerontologist at the University of Cambridge, and a high-profile longevity theorist. He was born in England in 1963, and he aims to live well beyond the end of this century. While his fellow gerontologists focus more on making elderly people as healthy as possible for as long as possible-- known in the business as "compression of morbidity" or "healthspan"-- Mr. de Grey is working to eliminate the inconvenience of death altogether.
His recipe, known as Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS), calls for a number of ingredients which do not yet exist. But each is theoretically within the grasp of medical science in the coming decades, at which time Mr. de Grey believes they can all be combined into a highly effective anti-aging therapy. He has been heard to declare that the first people who will live to see their 1,000th birthday are already alive today.
The SENS theory describes "seven deadly things" that erode the body's youthfulness at the cellular level, eventually leading to death by old age. Aubrey de Grey means to apply exercise, gene therapy, stem cells, and other yet-to-be-discovered methods of medicine to counteract each of these age-advancing devices:
- Cell death and atrophy: Treatable with exercise, stem cells, and chemicals which stimulate cell division.
- Cancerous cells:Theoretically treatable with a type of gene therapy being developed, called Whole-body Interdiction of Lengthening of Telomeres (WILT).
- Mutant mitochondria: Mutated DNA in the mitochondria causes a number of diseases. These can be prevented by moving the mitochondrial DNA into the cell nucleus, where the rest of the DNA resides.
- Cell senescence (unwanted cells): Fat cells and other unwanted cruft can be removed surgically, or by stimulating the immune system to attack unwanted cells.
- Extracellular crosslinks (loss of elasticity): Certain proteins, such as those in cells making up the arteries, become too rigid over time because they bond to each other. These bonds can be broken with certain chemicals (some in clinical trials even today).
- Extracellular junk: "Plaque" which collects between cells can be eliminated by stimulating the immune system, and/or by using peptides called "beta-breakers."
- Intracellular junk: Molecular garbage can be prevented from overwhelming certain cells by introducing enzymes which are known to be effective against such molecules.
Many scientists put no stock in Aubrey de Grey's SENS theories, but others hold the man and his efforts in high esteem. One thing is certain... the pursuit of curing elderliness is worthwhile. The SENS theory may be imperfect, and may in fact be completely off base. But theories can evolve, and in the meantime, his research is moving in the right direction.