Gandhi once said, describing his critics, "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win."
After declaring, essentially out of nowhere, that he had a program to end the disease of aging, renegade biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey knows how the first three steps of Gandhi's progression feel. Now he's focused on the fourth.
"I've been at Gandhi stage three for maybe a couple of years," de Grey said. "If you're trying to make waves, certainly in science, there's a lot of people who are going to have insufficient vision to bother to understand what you're trying to say."
This weekend, his organization, The Methuselah Foundation, is sponsoring its first U.S. conference on the emerging interdisciplinary field that de Grey has helped kick start. (Its first day, Friday, will be free and open to the public.) The conference, Aging: The Disease - The Cure - The Implications, held at UCLA, is an indication of how far de Grey has come in mainstreaming his ideas.
Less than a decade ago, de Grey was a relatively unknown computer scientist doing his own research into aging. As recently as three years ago a cadre of scientists wrote in the Nature-sponsored journal EMBO Reports, that his research program, known as Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence, was "so far from plausible that it commands no respect at all within the informed scientific community." Also in 2005, MIT-sponsored magazine Technology Review went so far as to offer a $20,000 prize to anyone who could prove that de Grey's program was "so wrong that it was unworthy of learned debate." (No one won.)
Now, though, some scientists are beginning to view his approach -- looking at aging as a disease and bringing in more disciplines into gerontology -- as worthwhile, even if they still look askance at his claims of permanent reversible aging within a lifespan. The Methuselah Foundation now has an annual research funding budget of several million dollars, de Grey says, and it's beginning to show lab results that he thinks will turn scientists' heads.
What's more, other researchers have also found some success pursuing similarly structured research programs. For example, late last year, the Buck Institute for Age Research received $25 million from the National Institutes of Health to establish a home for the "new scientific discipline of geroscience." The new field, and its research institute, are dedicated to proactively fighting aging with researchers from a dizzying array of fields.
"There are vast areas of what we're calling geroscience, which is the interface between aging and disease," said Gordon Lithgow, a Buck researcher who is managing interdisciplinary geroscience research for the institute.
And de Grey seems to have earned Lithgow's respect not necessarily by the power of his ideas, but rather his powers of persuasion in getting money for researchers to put his ideas into practice.
"We're all out here doing the best damn experiments we can think of … So the response to Aubrey was, go off and get a grant to do [experiments]," Lithgow said. "And to be fair, that's what he's done. He's gone out and raised money in an unconventional way and funded his research."
In research that will first be presented on Friday at the conference, Methuselah-funded scientists will demonstrate a proof-of-concept experiment for using bacterial enzymes to fight atherosclerosis, or the hardening of the arteries. That's an idea that de Grey has been pushing for years.
"Back in 2002, I published an inconspicuous review paper that suggested we might be able to use this approach," he said.
But de Grey isn't quite an establishment figure yet. Instead, he seems to have made the move from outsider crackpot to, well, insider crackpot. Lithgow maintains that de Grey still makes predictions far beyond what the messy lab work of biology can support.
"Aubrey extrapolates from current hard science into, 'If we can do something about this process and that and seven or eight other ands, then there's this great opportunity for great human life extension,'" Lithgow said. "And it's at that point that a lot of scientists are dropping off."
For now, de Grey and his foundation keep trucking along trying to pick off each of those processes one by one.
"In perhaps seven or eight years, we'll be able to take mice already in middle age and treble their lifespan just by giving them a whole bunch of therapies that rejuvenate them," de Grey said. "Gerontologists all over, even my most strident critics, will say yes, Aubrey de Grey is right."
Even as he imagines completing Gandhi's fourth step, de Grey always keeps his eye on the ultimate prize -- the day when the aging-as-disease meme reaches the tipping point necessary to funnel really big money into the field.
"The following day, Oprah Winfrey will be saying, aging is a disease and let's fix it right now," de Grey said.