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Last Updated: Thursday, 4 September, 2003, 13:41 GMT 14:41 UK
Battle for 'old mouse' prize
Valerie Sprague
BBC News Online

A mouse
Scientists are being challenged to prolong life
A contest to produce the oldest laboratory mouse could help solve the puzzle of how to combat human ageing.

Dr Aubrey de Grey of the University of Cambridge began the Methuselah Mouse Challenge in the hope that a breakthrough could be used to extend human life.

Dr de Grey told BBC News Online: "I predict that in 10 years, if we have appropriate funding, we will develop very good therapies to reduce ageing in mice.

"But it still could take a very long time for it to be applied to humans."

Dr de Grey, a theoretical biologist, said gene therapy or stem cell therapy might unlock the secret to ageing.

Professor de Grey at Cambridge
Dr de Grey believes the challenge will motivate scientists

He added that perhaps in the distant future, nanotechnology - microscopic elements introduced into the body - might hold the key.

He said: "Clearly, the older someone is, the more damage there is to repair, and the harder it would be to do the repair, and so it might take longer to develop the sufficiently powerful technology needed to do it."

The researcher hopes his award, currently set at about 20,000, would grow in the manner of the X Prize, a project to develop space travel for the general public.

The X Prize stands at $10m in US dollars - more than 6m - just seven years after its inception.

The record to beat

The first Methuselah Mouse Prize was awarded in June this year to Dr Andrzej Bartke for his mouse, dubbed GHR-KO 11C, which lived for 1,819 days.

The winner of the prize must better Dr Bartke's effort and will receive a portion of the prize money for each week the mouse survives after setting a new record.

Dr de Grey said he was not bothered by the idea that an anti-ageing formula might be developed by a pharmaceutical company and made available only to the very rich.

An elderly woman on a motorised scooter
The goal is to lengthen life and keep people feeling healthy longer

He said: "My guess is this will matter so much to people, that patents for technology will not get in the way, and a lot of money will be thrown at the problem by governments."

But what if governments object to the expense involved in keeping pensioners alive indefinitely?

He said he believes that would not be an issue if ageing could be reversed.

Dr de Grey said: "Keeping healthy far outweighs everything else. The pension system only exists because everybody gets frail.

"If their lives were made longer, everybody would want to work, instead of just hanging around."

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