Science

Build a Better Mouse

Of mice, men, and aging.

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Forget the X Prize. What's so great about sending a couple of people 100 kilometers up in the sky? The Methuselah Mouse Prize has a more interesting goal: getting a mouse to have an unusually long and healthy life.

The prize is named after Methuselah—the longest-lived human being, according to the Bible, which says he survived 969 years. If scientists can reliably lengthen the lives of mice, prize organizers believe, they will be well on their way to finding out how to do the same thing for people. The underlying insight is that, since 99 percent of the 30,000 or so mouse genes have direct counterparts in humans, we are in one narrow sense just big mice.

The Methuselah Mouse Prize is chiefly the brainchild of Aubrey de Grey, a theoretical biogerontologist at Cambridge University. The Methuselah Foundation offers two prizes.

One is the Postponement Prize, awarded whenever the world record life span for a mouse is exceeded. The second one is the Reversal Prize, awarded to researchers whose interventions keep a mature mouse alive significantly longer than expected. (The ordinary life span of a mouse is two to three years in a lab, even less in the wild.) Naturally, the Reversal Prize will be of particular interest to baby boomers.

The two prizes combined now stand at more than $62,000, and organizers hope to dramatically increase that amount through a donation drive. But the aim of the Methuselah Mouse Prize is not just to encourage scientists to get involved with anti-aging research; it's also a stunt aimed at capturing the public's imagination.

"I think it's great," says Christiaan Leeuwenburgh, director of the University of Florida's Biochemistry of Aging Laboratory. "It's going to get a lot of positive public attention for anti-aging research." De Grey believes people will demand more research into effective anti-aging treatments once they are convinced it is possible to significantly retard aging in a mammal.