MANATEE -- Wherever he speaks, 52-year-old biomedical gerontologist and You Tube star Aubrey de Grey makes it clear he hates being labeled the man who believes people will one day live forever.
As he explained Tuesday in an entertaining 45-minute speech before a crowd of 171 in the Selby Auditorium on the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee campus, he believes regenerative medicine such as gene therapy can repair the damage underlying aging. People could easily add 30 years to their lives within two decades, he said, in the latest Knowedge-A-Bull speaker event.
The thin de Gray, who sports a reddish-brown moustache, pony tail and long beard, spoke with the accent of his London birthplace and wore a simple outfit of jeans and Hush Puppy-type shoes.
He also made the startling prediction new advances four decades from now could add another 30 years taking the average life span to up around 140 or 150 years.
There is no reason this progression can't continue indefinitely, according to de Grey. Aging is simply caused by body breakdowns that can be repaired through technology on the molecular level.
A Mountain View, Calif.-based not-for-profit called Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence Research Foundation was built around de Grey's work as their chief science officer.
"Tonight I am going to talk about how we are moving forward with research that will lead, in the foreseeable future, to the development of medicines that can rejuvenate the body completely," de Grey said. "In other words, medicines that can repair the molecular and cellular damage the body does to itself in the course of life."
Accumulation of damage, or aging, eventually causes mental and physical functions to go downhill, de Grey said.
"If we can repair that damage periodically, we can maintain fully youthful health, both physical and mental," de Grey said. "In other words, the same function of a young adult."
Medicine will be administered by injections or surgery, de Grey said.
How will it work?
The human body has a large amount of things that can wear down, but they all fall into seven categories, de Grey said.
"For each category there is a generic therapy that can be used to repair every example of that type of damage," de Grey said.
One of the seven categories is loss of cells, de Grey said.
"Cells die and are not automatically replaced," de Grey said. "That happens in Parkinson's disease. The loss of cells over time give rise to malfunction of this part of the brain. With stem cell therapy, you put cells back into the brain that divide to replace the cells that have died."
De Grey told the crowd he thought Parkinson's will eventually be cured with stem cell therapy. He believes reversals for cancer, Alzheimer's and heart disease will also be achieved.
Why aren't drug companies on this?
"The reason why drug companies are not yet jumping all over this is the same reason they never jump on really early stage drugs," de Grey said. "Drug companies just don't do any drug development anymore in the early stages. We are going to see drug companies jumping on these coming drugs like you have never seen before. We are not going to see it until organizations like the SENS Research Foundation have progressed far enough"
Kathy Black, a gerontologist and a professor at USF Sarasota-Manatee, and Paula Bickford, a professor in the department of neurosurgery and brain repair at USF Tampa, gave de Grey an A-plus for innovation and diaglogue-sparking enthusiasm. They downgraded the doctor on some predictions.
"I also study aging, and a lot of the things he said about the causes of aging were right on," Bickford said. "I disagree on a few things. You can't just cure arteriosclerosis and everyone is going to live a thousand years. We would have to target all those key things that are changing with aging and I am not sure we are going to be there as soon as he thinks we are."
Black weighed in: "Throughout history the human lifespan has never exceeded about 120. That is the part that I think traditional gerontologists are struggling with. There's a maximum life span for all species, including humans and that's the part we are waiting to see, and we are not quite sure, but innovative thinking and science can take us to places we don't know. So, I don't want to be entirely pessimistic. But I guess I just want to be more cautious."
The first 30 extra years don't bother Black and Bickford as much as the next 30 years later, up to 150, they said.
"Throughout history that has never occurred," Black said. "That's the one piece we are stuck on but we are willing to travel this road and see.".
"He's right as far as the areas that need to be targeted," Bickford said. "I just think you would have to target all seven or nine at the same time and maybe even more for this to be put in practice to actually get that 30 years."
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter@RichardDymond.