Architects of longevity are working hard to make your 120-year wedding anniversary a reality. Book a hall early.

Frank Long

I’m too old to die young, but I may be the last in a long line of humans to make that claim. Geneticist Aubrey de Grey, PhD, insists a new crop of humans is already being born who will live to 150 years of age and, through nearly the entire hitch, remain in youthful good health. Members of this generation, and those who follow, will eventually meet an earthly demise, but will do so in bodies that have escaped the frail, unhealthy states caused by aging. De Grey, an expert on aging at Cambridge University, suggests the likely causes of death in this brave new world will result from natural disasters or accidents, such as pianos falling from overhead. When these future generations finally do make their exits, it will not be due to age-related killers we fear today such as diabetes and heart disease.

These mighty claims were made by De Grey as he debunked old age and the aging process during a recent CNN interview. A pale, lanky figure dressed in a blue sweatshirt and pink socks, with hair and beard grown waist-length, de Grey and his thinking may beg to be dismissed as fodder for science fiction. But that would be a mistake.

Legitimate science is on de Grey’s side. The longevity model he envisions is based on “rejuvenative medicine,” a branch of regenerative medicine practiced by today’s health care community in the form of cell therapies and tissue engineering. Rejuvenative medicine, de Grey explains, is nothing more than the application of regenerative medicine to the problem of aging. And, it turns out, the key to maintaining youth and good health is just a matter of housekeeping on a molecular level. The sickness and debilitation we associate with aging today are the result of molecular “garbage” that fouls our cells. De Grey explains that science will use molecular engineering to develop therapies that keep cells free of molecular garbage and, thus, the unhealthful effects of aging can be slowed or halted—indefinitely.

Sound far out? The arrival of healthy longevity may be much closer than it appears. On de Grey’s timetable, these antiaging therapies will be ready to use within 25 years to 50 years, and they’ll not only stop aging in its tracks but will virtually turn back the human biological clock. For the crowd of skeptics—insurance actuaries and funeral directors—the most compelling evidence that hints at the reality of de Grey’s vision is emerging at one of the nation’s leading treatment and research sites for physical rehabilitation, the Shepherd Center, in Atlanta. This facility is where tests on the first human to undergo embryonic stem cell therapy to treat spinal cord injury began less than 1 year ago.

The procedure essentially calls for human embryonic stem cell-derived oligodendrocyte progenitor cells to be injected into the area of spinal cord injury. Unlike de Grey’s therapies, this treatment does not clean molecular garbage from cells, but is designed to convert the injected stem cells into replacement nerve cells—myelin. It is difficult to predict how human subjects will respond, but tested in the laboratory on rats whose spinal cords were damaged enough so they could not walk normally, the animals fully regained the ability to walk, run, and stand on their hind legs.

I asked James Shepherd, cofounder and chairman of the board of the Shepherd Center, how the tests were progressing. Shepherd responded via e-mail that there is no expectation for neurological improvement in this phase 1 safety study, but he says there is hope among the spinal injured community for some degree of improvement.

“Many people I talk to would be pleased with the return of bowel, bladder, and sexual function,” Shepherd notes. “The home run would be full restoration of all motor and sensory functions.” Shepherd’s remarks were cautious, but his commitment to reinventing treatment for spinal cord injury is unmistakable. After all, Shepherd has skin in the game—he is paraplegic.

If de Grey’s claim that cell therapy-based health maintenance will arrive in less than 50 years seems like scientific chest-thumping, consider that the spinal cord treatment being tested at the Shepherd Center progressed from lab rats to humans in only 5 years. That timetable may collapse further pending a favorable outcome. “I believe that new stem cell trials will move quicker by piggybacking on the data gathered in this trial,” Shepherd confirms.

But if it becomes possible to extend human life by hundreds of years, should such a thing be done? Tortoises live much longer than humans, but that is perhaps because tortoises cause much less trouble than humans in nature, on the whole. The questions raised by the prospect of a hyperextended lifespan are bothersome. Would marriages endure 120 years? Could workers stay on the job nine decades? Will only the wealthy be able to afford antiaging therapies while all others die young, relatively speaking?

The fact is we are not prepared politically or intellectually to handle longevity on this scale. De Grey means well, but he should not be allowed to buy a single test tube until a Cambridge think tank sets up a blue ribbon panel of anthropologists to figure out how—and if—we are capable of living with each other all those extra innings. Despite the foreboding cultural questions about extreme life extension, there may be a silver lining in the here and now, especially if longevity research spins off medical advances the way the Apollo space program spun off technologies that led to the development of technology behind dialysis machines and CT scans. These novel developments may come sooner rather than later. And, in fact, if de Grey’s quest enables future science to close its grasp firmly around medical treasures similar to the conversion of stem cells into myelin—ultimately helping wheelchair-bound individuals to stand, walk, and run—then I wish him well.

—Frank Long