Wandering through the quadrangles and medieval bastions of learning at the University of Cambridge one overcast Sunday afternoon a few months ago, I found myself ruminating on how this venerable place had been a crucible for the scientific revolution that changed humankind’s perceptions of itself and of the world. The notion of Cambridge as a source of grand transformative concepts was very much on my mind that day, because I had traveled to England to meet a contemporary Cantabrigian who aspires to a historical role similar to those enjoyed by Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, and William Harvey. Aubrey David Nicholas Jasper de Grey is convinced that he has formulated the theoretical means by which human beings might live thousands of years – indefinitely, in fact.
Perhaps theoretical is too small a word. De Grey has mapped out his proposed course in such detail that he believes it may be possible for his objective to be achieved within as short a period as 25 years, in time for many readers of Technology Review to avail themselves of its formulations – and, not incidentally, in time for his 41-year-old self as well. Like Bacon, de Grey has never stationed himself at a laboratory bench to attempt a single hands-on experiment, at least not in human biology. He is without qualifications for that, and makes no pretensions to being anything other than what he is, a computer scientist who has taught himself natural science. Aubrey de Grey is a man of ideas, and he has set himself toward the goal of transforming the basis of what it means to be human.
For reasons that his memory cannot now retrieve, de Grey has been convinced since childhood that aging is, in his words, “something we need to fix.” Having become interested in biology after marrying a geneticist in 1991, he began poring over texts, and autodidacted until he had mastered the subject. The more he learned, the more he became convinced that the postponement of death was a problem that could very well have real solutions and that he might be just the person to find them. As he reviewed the possible reasons why so little progress had been made in spite of the remarkable molecular and cellular discoveries of recent decades, he came to the conclusion that the problem might be far less difficult to solve than some thought; it seemed to him related to a factor too often brushed under the table when the motivations of scientists are discussed, namely the small likelihood of achieving promising results within the period required for academic advancement – careerism, in a word. As he puts it, “High-risk fields are not the most conducive to getting promoted quickly.”
De Grey began reading the relevant literature in late 1995 and after only a few months had learned so much that he was able to explain previously unidentified influences affecting mutations in mitochondria, the intracellular structures that release energy from certain chemical processes necessary to cell function. Having contacted an expert in this area of research who told him that he had indeed made a new discovery, he published his first biological research paper in 1997, in the peer-reviewed journal BioEssays (“A Proposed Refinement of the Mitochondrial Free Radical Theory of Aging,” de Grey, ADNJ, BioEssays 19(2)161-166, 1997). By July 2000, further assiduous application had brought him to what some have called his “eureka moment,” the insight he speaks of as his realization that “aging could be described as a reasonably small set of accumulating and eventually pathogenic molecular and cellular changes in our bodies, each of which is potentially amenable to repair.” This concept became the theme of all the theoretical investigation he would do from that moment on; it became the leitmotif of his life. He determined to approach longevity as what can only be called a problem in engineering. If it is possible to know all the components of the variety of processes that cause animal tissues to age, he reasoned, it might also be possible to design remedies for each of them.
All along the way, de Grey would be continually surprised at the relative ease with which the necessary knowledge could be mastered – or at least, the ease with which he himself could master it. Here I must issue a caveat, a variant of those seen in television commercials featuring daredevilish stunts: “Do not attempt this on your own. It is extremely hazardous and requires special abilities.” For if you can take a single impression away from spending even a modicum of time with Aubrey de Grey, it is that he is the possessor of special abilities.
As he surveyed the literature, de Grey reached the conclusion that there are seven distinct ingredients in the aging process, and that emerging understanding of molecular biology shows promise of one day providing appropriate technologies by which each of them might be manipulated – “perturbed,” in the jargon of biologists. He bases his certainty that there are only seven such factors on the fact that no new factor has been discovered in some twenty years, despite the flourishing state of research in the field known as biogerontology, the science of aging; his certainty that he is the man to lead the crusade for endless life is based on his conception that the qualification needed to accomplish it is the mindset he brings to the problem: the goal-driven orientation of an engineer rather than the curiosity-driven orientation of the basic scientists who have made and will continue to make the laboratory discoveries that he intends to employ. He sees himself as the applied scientist who will bring the benisons of molecular biology to practical use. In the analogous terminology often used by historians of medicine, he is the clinician who will bring the laboratory to the bedside.
And so, in order to achieve his goal of transforming our society, de Grey has transformed himself. His “day job,” as he calls it, is relatively modest; he is the computer support for a genetics research team, and his entire official working space occupies a corner of its small lab. And yet he has achieved international renown and more than a little notoriety in the field of aging, not only for the boldness of his theories, but also because of the forcefulness of his proselytizing on their behalf. His stature has become such that he is a factor to be dealt with in any serious discussion of the topic. De Grey has documented his contributions in the scientific literature, publishing scores of articles in an impressive array of journals, including those of the quality of Trends in Biotechnology and Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, as well as contributing commentary and letters to other publications like Science and Biogerontology.