Winds whistled through Peking's Forbidden City as Jiajing, the 11th emperor of the Ming Dynasty, raised a porcelain flask decorated with symbols of eternal youth. It was to be his final attempt at achieving immortality. He had been duped by unscrupulous advisors into believing that the deadly mercury he was about to drink was the elixir of eternal life.
Jiajing wasn't the first or last to pursue everlasting youthfulness. It has been the stuff of legend and fantasy since we first began dreaming. Fantasy, legend, dreams—the realms of the supernatural but never the scientific. Until now.
Aubrey de Grey is a Cambridge gerontologist and co-founder or the California-based Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) Research Foundation. Gerontology is the study of aging, and de Grey is currently making waves in the field.
De Grey is at the epicentre of a growing cohort of researchers who believe we are on the cusp of a biological revolution which will give rise to therapies that will enable many of us already born to achieve something like Jiajing's dream. In other words, he believes that the first person who will live to be 1,000 is already alive today.
So is immortality just around the corner?
"The first thing I want to do is get rid of the use of this word immortality, because it's enormously damaging, it is not just wrong, it is damaging," de Grey told me. "It means zero risk of death from any cause—whereas I just work on one particular cause of death, namely aging. It is also a distraction, it causes people to think this whole quest is morally ambiguous and technologically fanciful."
But put another way, he's more optimistic. "If we ask the question: 'Has the person been born who will be able to escape the ill health of old age indefinitely?' Then I would say the chances of that are very high," he said. "Probably about 80 percent."
"We will be able to keep one step ahead of the problem and keep rejuvenating the same people as long as we like. That is what longevity escape velocity is all about."
It's not that de Grey has a cure-all magic potion ready to bottle back in the lab. There's no 21st century version of Jiajing's elusive elixir. The SENS roadmap is not based on stopping the aging process, but on undoing the damage done by the wear and tear of life. For example, they are currently working on the development of a therapy that stimulates the immune system to selectively target and kill so-called "death-resistant cells" that have lost the ability to divide, healthy cells then multiply and replenish the tissue. These therapies will then continue to improve, adding to an individual's life expectancy faster than they are using it up. It's a concept that de Grey calls "longevity escape velocity."
"The therapies that we are working on at the moment are not going to be perfect," he said. "These therapies are going to be good enough to take middle age people, say people aged 60, and rejuvenate them thoroughly enough so they won't be biologically 60 again until they are chronologically 90. That means we have essentially bought 30 years of time to figure out how to re-rejuvenate them when they are chronologically 90 so they won't be biologically 60 for a third time until they are 120 or 150. I believe that 30 years is going to be very easily enough time to do that."
Typically gerontologists have investigated ways of preventing metabolism from causing damage to the body, but de Grey doesn't see this as the way forward. "The alternative is to let the damage be created but to repair it periodically so that it never becomes so abundant that it causes pathology," he said. "We will be able to keep one step ahead of the problem and keep rejuvenating the same people as long as we like. That is what longevity escape velocity is all about."
The SENS model of gerontology is built on the principle that all of the many different metabolic reactions can be described within just seven categories. These include the accumulation of intracellular "junk" (malformed proteins within a cell); the accumulation of extracellular "junk;" extracellular crosslinks (unwanted chemical bonds that bind proteins); cell death; death-resistant cells; cancerous cells; and finally mutations to mitochondrial DNA.
De Grey claims that these "seven deadly things" constitute all pathological effects of aging. But perhaps his boldest claim is that we already have the knowledge to control and repair each of these different types of damage, and it is purely a matter of time before we begin to implement these therapies in living organisms.
"We need to make step by step breakthroughs in all the seven categories, but the big breakthrough in terms of publicity will be when we can take middle aged mice in the laboratory and rejuvenate them," he said. "Once we can do it for mice, people are going to know that its only a matter of time before we can do it for human beings. So that's where I want to get to and I think we have a fair chance of getting there in six to eight years from now."
Naturally, de Grey tells me that his strategy to end aging will most likely be developed before any other. However, if it is actual immortality you are after, you might want to think about uploading your conscience. This may sound farfetched, but it's an idea that Stephen Hawking believes could one day be possible. Speaking at the Cambridge Film Festival in 2013, the theoretical physicist explained: "the brain is like a programme in the mind, which is like a computer, so it's theoretically possible to copy the brain onto a computer and so provide a form of life after death." Once a person's mind has been uploaded onto a computer it is possible they could exist for as long technology exists. Whether this is "living" is debatable. It will also probably be quite some time before we have the capabilities to do this, but if de Grey's work can stave off the effects of old age we may live long enough to be afforded the luxury of digital immortality.
Whether or not the first person to achieve immortality is already alive is still a guessing game, but it is hard not to get excited about de Grey's optimistic projections. Jiajing would have been 508 this year, had his elixir proved effective. Perhaps one day, half a millennium from now, we will scratch our young heads trying to recall 2015.
Goodbye, Meatbags is a series on Motherboard about the waning relevance of the human physical form. Follow along here.