Could someone with the proper scientific credentials please stand up and tell us whether Aubrey de Grey's claim that we can defeat aging has any credibility? That's the challenge put forth by the MIT Technology Review last summer - and a few people did stand up. The dispute is not resolved yet, but the controversy is becoming red-hot. In the coming days, a "jury" will try (try) to settle it.
Flash-back: British biogerontologist and computer scientist Aubrey de Grey - who carries a resemblance to Gandalf - stunned and fascinated the attendees at both the TEDGLOBAL and TED06 conferences claiming that there is no reason why science could not figure out how to make us live until the age of 200 or beyond. De Grey says (I'm oversimplifying) that aging, like a disease, can be cured; that it is essentially a set of accumulating molecular and cellular transformations in our bodies, caused by metabolism, that eventually lead to pathology and kill us. Therefore, it could be approached "as an engineering problem": identify all the components of the variety of processes that cause tissues to age, and design remedies for each of them. He calls the approach "Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence" (SENS).
At TEDGLOBAL, Kari Stefansson, the founder of Iceland's DeCode Genetics, called the idea "peculiar": “Survival of the species is dependent on the death of the individual and on new generations; what matters is the presence of life, not the absence of death”. But clearly it takes more than that to debunk de Grey's theory. Turns out that a long profile of de Grey was one of the most widely-read articles in the MIT Tech Review last year, attracting thousands of letter and e-mails. Jason Pontin, the editor, went out searching for a biogerontologist who would take on de Grey's claims, "but while a number of biologists have criticized SENS to me privately, none have been willing to do so in public".
Why? It's possible that they just didn't want to waste their time on such a silly issue. Or could it be an immodest unwillingness to examine the details of SENS? Pontin wanted to find out, and last summer the Review announced a prize of US$ 20'000 for any molecular biologist who could demonstrate - in 750 words or less (plus annexes and footnotes) - that "SENS is so wrong that it is unworthy of learned debate".
A few scientists had a go at it. Charles V. Mobbs, associate professor for neuroscience and geriatrics at Mt Sinai School of Medicine, developed his argument around the fact that SENS would treat the symptoms (damages caused by the metabolism) rather than the causes (full text; de Grey's rebuttal; Mobbs counter-response - all in PDF). Bret Weinstein, a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan, went on a full-frontal attack (full text; rebuttal; counter-response), as did 9 researchers from universities and private organizations: "SENS is pseudoscience ... The prefix pseudo means false", they write (full text; rebuttal; counter-response). Those are the three submissions that, according to the Tech Review, qualified for consideration.
Now, a "jury" will deliberate, and present their conclusions. It includes TEDsters Rodney Brooks, Craig Venter and Nathan Myhrvold, along with Vikram Kumar, CEO of Dimagi, and Anita Goel, CEO of Nanobiosym. Their deliberations will be published in the July/August issue of the Technology Review, and on July 11 on the magazine's website.