High-Tech Daydreamers Investing In Immortality
ARTS & IDEAS/CULTURAL DESK | November 1, 2003, Saturday
High-Tech Daydreamers Investing In Immortality
Copyright New York Times Company Nov 1, 2003
Aubrey de Grey took the stage of the Camden Opera House, tugging at a beard worthy of Methuselah, to tell his listeners that they could triumph over death.
Mr. de Grey was not selling an afterlife or a metaphor. He is a geneticist at the University of Cambridge, in England, and his prophecy was straightforward if hard to believe: Getting old and dying are engineering problems. Aging can be reversed and death defeated. People already alive will live a thousand years or longer.
He was at pains to argue that what he calls ''negligible senescence,'' and what the average person would call living forever, is inevitable. His proposed war on aging, he said, is intended to make it happen sooner and make it happen right. He subscribes, it seems, to the philosophy articulated by Woody Allen: ''I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.''
This notion of getting in on the ground floor of immortality was apparently appealing to the roughly 500 people who came in mid-October to this coastal town of big yachts and small gift shops about 70 miles northeast of Portland to attend Pop!Tech, an annual technology conference. They were ready for the Next Big Thing. After all, many of them were present at the creation of the last one, the spread of the personal computer and the explosive growth of the Internet.
Stephen M. Case, the founder of AOL, was here, as were John Scully and Robert Metcalfe, who started the conference seven years ago. Mr. Scully was the chief executive of Apple, after he had left PepsiCo. Mr. Metcalfe invented the Ethernet and founded 3Com, among a few other achievements, before he became a venture capitalist. Other, lesser known entrepreneurs and investors, along with dot-com veterans, a gaggle of journalists and the merely curious, also attended to look for new ideas or promote them, and to use the gathering of thinkers and talkers as a guide to what's next.
The answer was clear. Now that the giddiness and glamour of the killer app and ultimate hand-held gizmo have passed into memory, it is biology that beckons. The possibility of making money out of biotech is of obvious interest. But the more exciting question in the air was not so much where to put your money as what to think about. Differentiating between vision and fantasy would come next.
Many in the audience seemed unafraid of amending the presumed laws of nature. When Juan Enriquez, from the Harvard Business School, displayed an X-ray of a chicken with three wings and asked who believed that this sort of research ought to continue, about two-thirds of those in the audience raised their hands. This was before they knew its purpose, which is to understand how to regenerate damaged tissues for human beings.
Mr. Enriquez said he was surprised, as well he might be. It is not often you find 300 people ready to vote for extra limbs, no matter the reason.
Other speakers addressed the importance of stem cell research, ocean exploration, a crisis in the patent system, the soul-deadening effect of suburbs, and the mode by which the Earth will die.
For audacity of imagination, though, Mr. de Grey was matched only by Joe Davis, a molecular artist from M.I.T. with a peg leg and a devilish glint in his eye, who, with the help of scientists at Harvard and M.I.T. has made art of DNA by inserting coded messages into the genes of bacteria. He does not work only with DNA. He also pointed out that drawings sent into space, presumably for curious extraterrestrials, lacked anatomically correct female genitalia. He has not been able to remedy that, but he did record vaginal contractions and translate them into a radio broadcast.
He also provided instruction in basic biology using a DNA model made of garden hose to great effect. All in all it was a perfect atmosphere for Mr. de Grey, whose campaign against death has something of the feeling of an Internet start-up. On one hand he is promising the world. On the other, the underlying science and technology are real, Mr. de Grey argued. And the business plan is, if nothing else, bold.
Yet without true expertise in some very sophisticated biology, it was hard to know how far away from the mainstream he was.
Mr. de Grey is probably several steps ahead of the avant garde in his conviction that the 4,000- or 5,000-year life is right around the corner. But extending the average human life to 150 years is commonly discussed. And some gerontologists say there is no theoretical limit to the human life span.
Mr. de Grey's ideas were not completely new to people who have been pondering cyborgs and artificial intelligence for years. ''I think, and I've thought this for a long time, that we live, roughly speaking, in the last generation of human beings,'' said Whitfield Diffie, chief of security for Sun Microsystems, a pioneer in encryption, and a freewheeling thinker often sought after for such conferences as a speaker. He was just visiting this year and said he was fascinated by the grand claims for the biological century, which he views as probably too conservative.
He is convinced, he said, that there are probably people alive already today who will have unlimited life spans. And he was unimpressed by the skepticism of more conservative experts in the field of aging. After all, he said, he had witnessed change coming rapidly from unexpected directions in the digital world.
Mark Hurst, who runs a consulting company in New York and founded a Web site for consumer complaints, thisisbroken.com, said after the meeting that he was ''skeptical and entertained.'' But, he said, ''as far as actually believing it,'' he thinks most of those he talked to at Pop!Tech had the same question about the scientific details as he did, ''What the heck was he talking about?''
Mr. de Grey compared the cellular and molecular damage that aging causes to what happens to a house. Houses keep going, he said, not because they are built to be immortal, but because people keep repairing them. Science should take the same approach to the human body, he argued; many, if not all, of the techniques for making such repairs are already available.
He also had an answer for how to pay for the necessary research. First prove that the life of laboratory mice can be extended. Once people realize that aging can be reversed in a mammal, he said, research will take off, and the demand for extending life far beyond the current limits will be universal. Then people can just keep repairing themselves and researching new ways to take care of future damage.
To get this whole process going, Mr. de Grey established the Methuselah Mouse Prize in September. The prize is drawn from a fund, at methuselahmouse.org, now open for donations. A portion of it is to be offered each time the record is broken for prolonging mouse life. A portion will also be offered for reversing aging, which is a more complicated calculation. The prize fund stands at $28,448.
With enough money, Mr. de Grey said, it would take about 10 years to find a proven method for taking any 2-year-old mouse, already two-thirds of the way through a normal life, and extending it to five years, the equivalent of 150 years for humans. At that point the war on human aging could begin in earnest.
Mr. de Grey described himself as a theoretician, and as such he holds a position that is rejected by most researchers into the science of aging. For instance, Leonard P. Guarente, a professor of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said, ''The idea of people living to a thousand is preposterous.'' There are mechanisms that may well allow extending life, he said, but so much goes wrong as organisms deteriorate with age that ''trying to fix everything that's going wrong is impossible.''
Mr. de Grey is undeterred by criticism and relatively unconcerned about suggestions that near-immortality, if achievable, might not be entirely a good thing. Asked what would happen to reproduction when the living started to accumulate the way the dead do now, taking up all the space, he said they would no doubt resent new arrivals. He said matter-of-factly that it would be, by and large, a world without children.
He recognized that there would be difficult issues to face but brushed aside any suggestion that defeating death was not a fundamentally good thing to do.
''Aging really is barbaric,'' he said. ''It shouldn't be allowed. I don't need an ethical argument. I don't need any argument. It's visceral. To let people die is bad.''
Although Mr. de Grey got his listeners talking and thinking, there was no indication that their interest meant they had signed on to the program. Mr. Diffie, for one, was unconvinced by the notion of death as something that arrived by accident in evolution. It was, after all, universal. ''My nose for when I don't understand something tells me there's something here I don't understand,'' he said. '' I don't think they understand it either.''
The audience was not lacking in millionaires, but there was no great surge of donations to the Methusaleh Mouse Prize after Mr. de Grey's talk. According to his online record of donations, $1,849 was received during or after Pop!Tech, which ran from Oct. 16 to 18.
Mr. de Grey has no illusions about the challenge he faces. He wants to establish an institute to direct research, he said, adding that he probably needs $500 million to achieve the goal of using mouse research to kick-start a global research explosion on human aging. That includes the prize fund.
Just before a dinner the night after his talk, one of the participants in the conference approached him and asked, ''Can we talk about funding?''
''Yeah,'' Mr. de Grey said, ''how much money do you have?''