Aubrey De Grey, in California. He thinks humans could live to 5,000, and wants Calment’s DNA tested. Photograph: Carlos Chavarria/Redux/eyevine
Novoselov wrote to Young at Guinness World Records about Calment in October 2018, “asking him to look attentively at the issues we raised”. His response, says Novoselov, was “a display of aggression by Europe against everything civilised”; Young, he says, characterised his work as a conspiracy directed from on high by “someone important”. But its not surprising that Novoselov’s abrasive tactics have raised eyebrows; he has threatened Young, as well as Calment’s validators, with investigation by Sledkom, the Russian FBI.
The evidence for a Russian disinformation campaign is thin, but Zak’s paper did have a second sponsor. The peer-reviewed version was published in Rejuvenation Research, the journal devoted to life-extension research edited by Aubrey de Grey, the controversial gerontologist and life-extension advocate who has claimed that, by 2100, the human lifespan could reach 5,000 years. Even if Zak doesn’t believe it, the possibility that Calment did reach 122 is tantalising for De Grey. “Anyone who is the world record holder of longevity is of interest to those of us studying the biology of ageing,” he tells me.
Speaking on the phone from London, where he is on a stopover between Berlin and his home in California, De Grey is evasive about whether his strategy is to force the release of Calment’s blood sample. But he does think it should be made available for science: “In the interests of saving lives, finding out more about ageing to eventually postpone ageing – then that’s actually quite important.” Would he want his own research foundation, Sens, to do the DNA testing? Not necessarily, he says, “but I would certainly know the right kind of researchers to recommend”.
That analysis seems unlikely to happen any time soon. The Fondation Jean Dausset, a private genetic research centre in Paris, refuses even to confirm that it is keeping Jeanne Calment’s blood; just that it has a collection of biosamples it alone can use for research under anonymised conditions. But François Schächter, the scientist who in the 1990s founded its Chronos Project, the first genetic survey of centenarians in the world, has confirmed that her blood was taken and her DNA extracted.
Twenty years ago, the life-extension field promoted by mavericks like De Grey was outlaw science. Now, the landscape has changed: the technical means for “hacking” the human lifespan have come into being, and the sector is beginning to attract serious investment. In 2013, Google invested $1.5bn in an entire division, Calico, devoted to “solving death”. PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel has given millions of dollars to Sens.
But Sens, according to its annual reports, has been running at heavy losses. De Grey says it has been spending the $13m he put into the foundation in 2011 on research for anti-ageing therapies that will save “several million” lives. But it must start to pay its way; wouldn’t securing the DNA of the oldest woman in the world be a great publicity coup, as death-dodging tech billionaires pile into the sector? De Grey bats off this idea. “I get enough media attention as it is.”
If he could study Calment’s DNA, what might he expect to learn? De Grey points out that supercentenarians’ genetic material contains a high ratio of useful information, “because they have to get more things right in order to get to the age they do”. One obvious area of interest is how Calment bypassed cancer, heart disease, diabetes and other late-life killers.
Several scientists I spoke to believe that Calment’s genome should be made available for study; but they don’t approve of the way Zak and De Grey have seemingly attempted to force the foundation’s hand. One consequence of promoting the switch theory, they point out, is that they have alienated family members whose own DNA might be crucial in understanding Calment’s.
Earlier this month, a Russian news agency announced that a woman who was purportedly 123 had died in the Astrakhan region of southern Russia. This is almost certainly impossible – even Novoselov thinks so; given her children’s ages, she would have given birth three times in her 50s. But the story underlines the need for gerontology to keep its house in order.
At the time of going to press, scientists from around the world were due to discuss the impact of the Calment affair on gerontology at a special meeting in Paris. As for her mortal remains, some think the Fondation Jean Dausset might be more open to collaboration as anti-ageing science evolves – but it is unlikely to be with De Grey. Despite telling me that Jeanne Calment does not figure high on his priorities, he plans to devote another issue of Rejuvenation Research to age validation and Calment next year.
In Arles, despite everything, the counter-investigation group are tickled by the idea that Jeanne Calment might have been a master fraudster. “I would really like the switch story to be true, like in the novels I love reading,” says Cécile Pellegrini. “I find that kind of thing super-exciting. If it’s actually true, she was really something!” But perhaps the doyenne has something else to teach the would-be immortals of Silicon Valley: what extra trouble would 5,000 years of existence bring, if we can’t get the record straight on a single ordinary lifetime?
• Additional reporting by Marc Bennetts
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