If you haven't taken a look at the new Fortune Magazine article on Aubrey de Grey and the Methuselah Mouse Prize, you certainly should do so. It's a good piece, succinctly outlining Aubrey's work, proposals, and some of the science in a compact two pages.
Absent-mindedly stroking his Rip van Winkle beard, Aubrey de Grey recalls when he first realized how humans might halt the process of growing old. His "Eureka!" came at a research meeting in California four years ago. Jet-lagged and wide awake at 4 a.m., the British scientist posed himself a simple question: "What would it take to bioengineer a nonaging human?" The light dawned as he scribbled a list - it seemed that only seven things had to be prevented, mainly toxic byproducts of metabolism that accumulate in the body over time. "I realized that we could bloody well fix them all," he says. "We could go in and periodically clean up the seven deadly things before they cause problems."
Wishful thinking, perhaps. But de Grey has emerged as one of the boldest thinkers and organizers in the science of aging, whose ideas have begun to influence a whole generation of biologists, even as they make rapid strides toward understanding that universal curse. De Grey's vision is arguably no wilder than, say, predicting in 1950 that some decades thence we'd create goats that make spider silk. (In case you hadn't heard, goats implanted with spider genes secrete the stuff of the stronger-than-steel fiber in their milk.) As spider-goats show, biology is becoming ever more like engineering - a field whose problems yield to methodical attacks with known tools. Run that trend forward a few decades, argues de Grey, and you could see medical engineers sprucing up our bodies much as handymen replace dislodged roof shingles to prevent minor leaks from leading to collapsed ceilings. That means some people alive today may still be that way centuries from now, says de Grey.
Part of Aubrey's insight is into how to best manage the politics and process of big science. New paradigms and new ways of looking at research are not accepted overnight. The biggest battle is often simply to get the old guard to engage and seriously debate new ideas.
Even if he's right, de Grey is well aware that scientific feasibility doesn't equal political will. In fact, he says his own starting point in gerontology was his recognition in the mid-1990s of an institutional "fatalism logjam." Since there have been few signs of progress in the quest for anti-aging therapies, funding agencies generally dismiss such work as a waste of resources, or worse, as attempts to brew up snake oil. They won't pay for research, so no progress is made - which, in turn, keeps the impression of intractability in place. Thus, serious scientists have long avoided the pursuit of anti-aging therapies for fear of being labeled flaky dreamers or aspiring charlatans. The closest approach to such work is the relatively modest quest for medicines that prolong good health during old age. This entrenched timidity "just makes me spit," says de Grey. Many researchers on aging privately agree, he adds, but can't afford to be as outspoken as he is because it might hurt their chances to get grants. (A problem he doesn't have, thanks to his genetics job.) Breaking the vicious circle, he adds, will require a big, bold stroke.
Aubrey de Grey's first big bold stroke, engineered in concert with the indefatigable Dave Gobel, is the Methuselah Mouse Prize. Research prizes have a long and honorable history of spurring scientific development, with as much as 50 times the prize amount raised in funding by competing researchers. We humans like competitions a great deal, and vital scientific research can benefit from this urge.
That's where the mice come in. De Grey speculates that solving the remaining scientific puzzles to achieve "robust mouse rejuvenation" would require $100 million per year of focused research funding over the next decade. That sounds like a massive amount of money, but it isn't compared with the National Institutes of Health's annual budget of about $28 billion. And the bang-per-buck would dwarf that of other research pursuits. Says de Grey: "You can save more lives by helping to cure aging than in any other way."
De Grey believes that mounting a high-profile campaign to arrest aging in mice would rivet public attention on the huge promise of anti-aging research, making it politically tenable to put in serious money. The Methuselah Mouse Prize is the first step. The inaugural winner received only about $500, but later record-setters will get more; donors have given or pledged nearly $400,000 to bulk up the purse, says de Grey.
I am very proud to be a member of The Three Hundred initiative, philanthropists at all levels of income who have pledged $25,000 over the next 25 years to the prize fund. At this stage in the prize fund life cycle, just about a year after the first launch, every donor and every cent counts. I encourage you all to make a contribution of any size to the prize total, and thus show your support for the future of real anti-aging medicine.