High-Tech Daydreamers Investing in Immortality

November 1, 2003

CAMDEN, Me. - 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

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

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,

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

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,, 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

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

To get this whole process going, Mr. de Grey established
the Methuselah Mouse Prize in September. The prize is drawn
from a fund, at, 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

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

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?"