Silicon Valley has turned its attention to discovering a cure for a universal disease: AGING. They are pouring billions into biotech firms to attempt to ‘hack the code’ of life, despite concerns about potential unintended consequences.
In Palo Alto, the heart of Silicon Valley, hedge fund manager Joon Yun is doing a basic calculation. According to US social security data, the probability of a 25-year-old dying before age 26 is 0.1%. If we could keep that risk constant throughout life instead of it rising due to age-related disease, the average person would live 1,000 years.
Yun finds the prospect intriguing and even believable. Late last year he put his money where his mouth is, bringing up a 1 million dollar prize challenging scientists to “hack the code of life” and push human lifespan past its apparent maximum of about 120 years (the longest known/confirmed lifespan was 122 years).
Yun believes it is possible to “solve aging” and get people to live healthy, more or less indefinitely. There are already several scientific teams competing for his Palo Alto Longevity Prize, to be awarded in the first instance for restoring vitality and extending lifespan in mice by 50%.
But this is merely the beginning. Yun has deep pockets and expects to put up more money for progressively greater feats...possibly much more.
He says this is a moral rather than a personal quest. Our lives and society are troubled by growing numbers of loved ones lost to age-related disease and suffering extended periods of deterioration, with significant costs.
Yun has an impressive list of nearly 50 advisers, including scientists from some of America’s top universities.
Yun’s quest for the fountain of youth is typical of the manic enthusiasm to disrupt death sweeping Silicon Valley. Billionaires and companies are supremely confident about what they can accomplish.
In September 2013 Google announced the creation of Calico, short for the California Life Company. Its mission is to reverse engineer the biology that controls lifespan and “devise interventions that enable people to lead longer and healthier lives.”
Shrouded in mystery, the new biotech company seems to be looking to develop age-defying drugs.
In April 2014 it recruited Cynthia Kenyon, a scientist acclaimed for work that included genetically engineering roundworms to live up to six times longer than usual, and who has spoken of dreaming of applying her discoveries to people.
“Calico has the money to do almost anything it wants,” says Tom Johnson, an earlier pioneer of the field now at the University of Colorado who was the first to find a genetic effect on longevity in a worm.
In March 2014, pioneering American biologist and technologist Craig Venter, along with the tech entrepreneur founder of the X Prize Foundation, Peter Diamandis, announced a new company called Human Longevity Inc.
Its purpose is not to develop anti-aging drugs or competing with Calico, according to Venter.
But it plans to create a giant database of 1 million human genome sequences by 2020, including those from super-centenarians. Venter says that data should help figure out the puzzle of what makes for a longer, healthier life, and expects others who are working on life extension to use his database. “Our approach can help Calico immensely, and if their approach is successful it can help me live longer,” explains Venter. “We hope to be the reference center in the middle of everything.”
In an office not far from Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, Aubrey de Grey is feeling vindicated over the new excitement about defeating aging.
For years, he has been on a crusade to jolt researchers into beginning a scientific quest to eliminate aging and extend healthy lifespan indefinitely.
It is a Sisyphean task because he considers the world to be in a “pro-aging trance,” happy to just give up and accept that aging is unavoidable when the reality is that it’s simply a “medical problem” that science can solve.
According to de Grey, similar to a vintage car that can be kept in good condition indefinitely with periodic preventative maintenance, so there is no reason why, at least theoretically, the same can’t be true of the human body. We are, after all, biological machines.
His claims about the possibilities (he has said the first person who will live to 1,000 years is probably already alive), and some different and unverified ideas about the science behind aging, have not endeared him to traditional academics studying aging.
But the appearance of Calico and others suggests the tide might be turning. “There is an increasing number of people realizing that the concept of anti-aging medicine that works is going to be the biggest industry that ever existed by some huge margin and that it just might be foreseeable.”
Since 2009, de Grey has been the chief scientific officer at The Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (Sens) Research Foundation, including an annual contribution (about $600,000 a year) from Peter Thiel, a billionaire Silicon Valley venture capitalist.
With money from his inheritance, he funds about $5m of research annually. Some are done in-house, the rest sponsored by outside institutions.
De Grey isn’t the only one who sees a renaissance of anti-aging research. “Radical life extension isn’t consigned to the realm of cranks and science fiction writers anymore,” says David Masci, a researcher at the Pew Research Center, who recently wrote a report on the topic of the scientific and ethical dimensions of radical life extension.
“Serious people are researching in this area, and serious thinkers are thinking about this.”
Although the funding has not met earlier expectations, billionaires have long supported research into the biology of aging. It has mostly been aimed at extending “healthspan,” the years in which you are free of feebleness or illness, rather than lifespan, although an apparent effect is that it would also be extended.
“If a consequence of increasing health is that life is extended, that’s a good thing, but the most important part is keeping people healthy as long as possible,” says Kevin Lee, a director of the Ellison Medical Foundation.
Whereas much biomedical research concentrates on trying to cure specific diseases, scientists in the small anti-aging field hunt something more substantial.
They investigate the details of the aging process to find ways to prevent it at its root, thus stopping the whole slew of diseases that come along with aging.
Life expectancy has risen in developed countries from about 47 in 1900 to about 80 today, primarily due to advances in curing childhood diseases.
But there is an unintended consequence: those longer lives come loaded with misery. Age-related chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, stroke and Alzheimer’s are more prevalent today than ever.
The standard medical approach to curing one disease at a time only makes a bad situation worse, says Jay Olshansky, a sociologist at the University of Chicago School of Public Health who runs a project called the Longevity Dividend Initiative that makes a case for funding aging research to increase healthspan on health and economic grounds.
“I would like to see a cure for heart disease or cancer,” he says. “But it would lead to a dramatic escalation in the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease.”
By annihilating aging at the root they could be dealt with as one, reducing these hideous afflictions by lowering all age-related disease risks simultaneously, says Olshansky. The evidence is now building that this bolder, age-delaying approach could work.
Scientists have already successfully intervened in aging in a variety of animal species, and researchers say there is a reason to believe it could be achieved in people.
“We have really turned a corner,” says Brian Kennedy, director of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, adding that five years ago the scientific consensus was that aging research was interesting but unlikely to lead to anything practical.
“We’re now at the point where it’s easy to extend the lifespan of a mouse. That’s not the question anymore; it’s can we do this in humans? And I don’t see any reason why we can’t,” says David Sinclair, a researcher based at Harvard.
A reason for optimism comes after several different approaches have produced promising results. Some existing drugs, such as the diabetes drug metformin, have serendipitously turned out to display age-defying effects.
Several drugs are in development that mimics the mechanisms that cause lab animals fed carefully calorie-restricted diets to live longer.
Others copy the effects of genes that occur in long-lived people. One drug already in clinical trials is rapamycin, which is usually used to help organ transplants and treat rare cancers. It has been shown to extend the life of mice by 25%, the greatest achieved so far with a drug, and protect them against diseases of aging including cancer and cognitive impairment.
A recent clinical trial by Novartis, in healthy elderly volunteers in Australia and New Zealand, found a variant of the drug increased their response to flu vaccine by 20%, significant, since our immunity to flu is something that diminishes with old age.
“[This was] the first [trial] to take a drug suspected to slow aging, and examine whether it slows or reverses a property of aging in older, healthy individuals,” says Kennedy. Other drugs set to be tested in humans are compounds inspired by resveratrol, a substance found in red wine and has been featured on 60 Minutes.
Some scientists believe it is the “French paradox” that French people have a low incidence of heart disease while eating fatty diets.
In 2003, Sinclair published evidence that high doses of resveratrol extend the healthy lives of yeast cells. After Sirtris, a company co-founded by Sinclair showed that resveratrol-inspired compounds had favorable effects in mice, it was bought by drug giant GlaxoSmithKline for $720m in 2008.
Although development has proved more complicated than first thought, GSK is planning a large clinical trial this year, says Sinclair. He is now working on another drug that has a different way of activating the same pathway.
James Kirkland, a researcher who studies aging at the Mayo Clinic, says he knows of about 20 drugs now that extended the lifespan or health span of mice.
The aim is to begin tests in humans, but clinical studies of aging are challenging because of the length of our lives, though there are ways around this such as testing the drugs against rare diseases in elderly patients and looking for improvements in other conditions at the same time.
What the first drug will be, and what it will do, is uncertain. Ideally, you could take a single pill that would pause aging in every part of your body. But Kennedy notes that in mice treated with rapamycin, some age-related effects, such as cataracts, don’t slow down.
“I don’t know any one drug that is going to do everything,” he says. As to when you might begin treatment, Kennedy imagines that in future you could start treatment sometime between the age of 40 and 50 “because it keeps you healthy ten years longer.”
With treatments at such an early stage, guesses as to how effective they will be can only be that...guesses. But Kirkland says the informal ambition in his field is to increase health-span by two to three years in the next decade or more.
Beyond that, what effects these drugs might have on extending our healthy lives is harder to predict.
A recent report by the UK Human Longevity Panel, based on interviews with leading figures in the field, said: “There was disagreement about how far the maximum lifespan could increase, with some experts believing that there was a maximum threshold that could not be stretched much more than the current 120 years or so, and others finding that there was no limit.”
Expert Scientists and Researchers Disagree
Nir Barzilai, director of The Institute for Aging Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, is one of the pessimists. “Based on the biology that we know today, somewhere between 100 and 120 there is a roof in play, and I challenge if we can get beyond it.”
Venter disagrees. “I don’t see any absolute biological limit on human age,” he says, arguing that cellular immortality...running the clock backward...should be possible.
“We can expect natural processes to get rid of years eventually. Whether this will happen this century or not, I can’t tell you”. Such ideas are just mere speculation for now.
But John Troyer, who studies death and technology at the Center for Death and Society at the University of Bath, says we need not dismiss them. “You want to think about it now before you are in the middle of an enormous mess.”
What happens if we all live to 120 or beyond? Society will start to look very different.
“People working and living longer might make it more difficult for a new generation to get into the labor force or find houses,” says Troyer.
And, with aging delayed, how many children are we talking about as being an average family?
“There is a very strong likelihood there would be an impact on things like family structures.”
A 2003 American President’s Council on Bioethics report looked at some of these issues suggesting there also may be repercussions for individual psychology.
One of the “virtues of mortality” it pointed out is that it may force us to make each day count. Would knowing you had longer to live delay your willingness to make the most of life?
De Grey acknowledges potential practical challenges but insists society would adapt by having fewer children, and people being able to decide when to end their lives. Also, there are pressing questions about who would benefit if and when these interventions become available.
Will it just be the super rich or will market incentives (think about the demand) push costs down and make treatment affordable?
Will health insurers pay for drugs that extend people's lives? The medical cost of caring for people in their twilight years would fall if they remained healthier longer but delayed aging will also mean more people draw pensions and state benefits.
But many say these challenges don’t negate the moral imperative.
If the period of healthy life can be extended, then doing so is the humane thing to do, says Nick Bostrom, director of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute. “There seems to be no moral argument not to,” he says.
Troyer agrees but asks whether living longer does necessarily mean you will be healthier – what does “healthy” or “healthier” mean in this context?
But forget about the future. There are challenges right now for the new tech fledglings. Calico may get side-tracked by basic research, worries de Grey; Venter’s approach may take years to be helpful due to issues about data gathering, thinks Barzilai; while the money on offer from the Palo Alto prize is a meager sum for the hoped-for result and potential societal impact, says Johnson.
Still, even if they don’t succeed, we may still benefit.
Why might tech billionaires decide to fund life extension research? Three reasons, according to Patrick McCray, a historian of modern technology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
First, if you had that much money, why not live longer to enjoy it? Next, there is money to be made in the impending gold rush. But last, and what he thinks is the heart of the matter, is ideology.
If your business and social world has been built by “disruptive technologies,” what could be more disrupting than slowing down or “defeating” aging?
“Coupled to this is the idea that if you have made your billions in an industrial sector that is based on precise, careful control of 0s and 1s, why not imagine you could extend this to the control of atoms and molecules? ” he says.
Here are several tech “heavy-hitters” on board the anti-aging team
Peter Thiel, 47, PayPal co-founder who admits he took human growth hormone (HGH) as part of his regime to reach 120. He also follows a Paleo diet, doesn’t eat sugar, drinks red wine and runs regularly. He has given more than $6m to Aubrey de Grey’s Sens Foundation. His attitude toward aging?
“You can accept it, you can deny it, or you can fight it. I think our society is dominated by people who are into denial or acceptance, and I prefer to fight it.”
Google co-founder Sergey Brin, 41, has been instrumental in helping bring the new biotech company Calico to fruition. “We’re tackling aging, one of life’s greatest mysteries,” says the website of the research and development company launched in 2013 and which in September 2014 joined with biopharmaceutical firm AbbVie to pour up to $1.5bn into a research facility focused on fighting age-related diseases.
Larry Ellison, the co-founder of computer company Oracle, told his biographer Mark Wilson. “How can a person be there and then just vanish, just not be there?”
Ellison, 70, created the Ellison Medical Foundation in 1997 to support aging research and has spent more than $335m in the area, though it announced in 2013 that it would no longer fund further grants. Ellison remains silent about why, but there are reports that with the emergence of Calico, he felt his job was done.
“A lot of people spend the last decade of their lives in pain and misery combating disease,” says Craig Venter, San Diego-based pioneering biologist and billionaire entrepreneur who raced to sequence the human genome.
“I think it is possible to begin to do more about that than we are doing.” Venter, 68, announced his new company, Human Longevity, to promote healthy aging using breakthroughs in genomics and stem cell therapies in March 2014. Would Venter desire to live forever?
“I am not sure our brains and our psychologies are ready for immortality,” he says. “[But] if I can count on living to 100 without major debilitating diseases I would accept that Faustian bargain right now.”
A digital copy of your brain turned into a low-cost, lifelike avatar, which doesn’t age. That’s the vision of Dmitry Itskov, a young Russian multi-millionaire Internet mogul.
His 2045 Initiative, named for the year he plans to complete it, aims to “create technologies enabling the transfer of an individual’s personality to a more advanced non-biological carrier, and extending life, including to the point of immortality.”
His ideas agree with Ray Kurzweil, a prominent futurist, who is director of engineering at Google. Kurzweil has predicted that scientists will one day find a way to download human consciousness, so we no longer need our bodies.
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