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Video Download: Scientists Bold Prediction Well Soon Extend Life Well Beyond 120 Part 1
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Silicon Valley has turned its attention to discovering a cure for a universal disease: AGING. Despite apprehensions about possible unintended consequences, they are pouring billions into biotech companies to attempt to ‘hack the code’ of life.
In Palo Alto, hedge fund manager Joon Yun is completing an elementary computation. As per US social security data, the chance of a 25-year-old dying before age 26 is 0.1%. If that risk stayed steady throughout life instead of rising due to age-related illness, the average person would live 1,000 years.
Yun is intrigued by that prospect and feels it is believable. He put his money where his mouth is, offering a 1 million dollar prize challenging scientists to “hack the code of life” and boost the human lifespan past its theoretical maximum of about 120 years (the longest known/confirmed lifespan was 122 years).
Yun thinks it is conceivable to “solve aging” and enable people to live healthily for an extended time. There are numerous scientific teams in the hunt for his Palo Alto Longevity Prize, to be presented in the first instance for rejuvenating vitality and extending lifespan in mice by 50%.
But this is just the start. Yun has massive financial resources and plans to put up more money for continually more substantial feats...possibly much more.
Yu feels this is a moral issue than a personal pursuit. All of us are affected by increasing numbers of loved ones passing away before their time to age-related afflictions and suffering extended periods of pain and debilitation, with humongous costs.
Yun has a deep and extensive list of nearly 50 advisers, including scientists from some of America’s best universities.
Yun’s search for unlocking the keys to aging is typical of the mania to disrupt death sweeping Silicon Valley. Billionaires and companies are extraordinarily confident about the longevity possibilities.
In September 2013, Google disclosed the creation of Calico, short for the California Life Company. Its goal is to reverse engineer the biology that regulates lifespan and “devise interventions that enable people to lead longer and healthier lives.”
Shrouded in mystery, the new biotech company is focused on developing longevity drugs.
In April 2014, it enlisted Cynthia Kenyon, a scientist admired for her work that included genetically engineering roundworms to live as much as six times longer than usual and who aspires to apply 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 uncover a genetic effect on aging 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 objective is not to develop anti-aging drugs or compete with Calico, said Venter.
Instead, its goal is to create a massive database of 1 million human genome sequences by 2020, including those from super-centenarians. Venter stated that data should help solve the puzzle of what results in a longer, healthier life, and he 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 close to Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, Aubrey de Grey feels validated over the new excitement about defeating aging.
For decades, he has been on a crusade to prod researchers to start a scientific mission to eliminate aging and indefinitely extend a healthy lifespan.
It is a Sisyphean task since he believes traditional medicine to be in a “pro-aging trance,” content to surrender and accept that aging is unpreventable when the reality is that it’s merely a “medical problem” that science can solve.
According to de Grey, similar to an old car that can be kept running indefinitely with regular preventative maintenance, so the same should be true of the body. Cars are mechanical machines, and we are biological machines.
His consideration concerning longevity possibilities (he has stated the first person who will live to 1,000 years is probably already alive), and several unique but unproven ideas about the science that comprises aging, have earned him scorn and skepticism from traditional academics researching aging.
But the emergence of Calico and others suggests that the times are changing. “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," said de Gray
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.
He funds about $5m of research annually with money from his inheritance. Some are done in-house, and outside institutions sponsor the rest.
De Grey is not alone in forecasting a renaissance of anti-aging research. “Radical life extension isn’t consigned to the realm of cranks and science fiction writers any more,” says David Masci, a researcher at the Pew Research Center. He recently wrote a report on the topic of the scientific and ethical aspects of extreme life extension.
“Serious people are researching in this area, and serious thinkers are thinking about this.”
Although the funding has not met earlier projections, billionaires have long supported research into the biology of aging. It has mainly been focused on extending “healthspan,” the years in which you are energetic and disease-free, rather than lifespan. However, a noticeable effect is that it would also be lengthened.
“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.
In the past biomedical research was mainly based on trying to cure specific diseases. Currently, researchers in the fledgling anti-aging area are seeking results far more considerable.
They delve into the minutiae of the aging process to uncover methods to prevent it at its root, thus halting the entire cascade of diseases accompanying aging.
Life expectancy has skyrocketed in developed countries from about 47 in 1900 to around 80 today, mainly due to advances in curing childhood diseases.
However, there is an unintended consequence: those longer lives come crammed with anguish. Age-related chronic diseases are more rampant now than ever.
The traditional medical approach to focusing on 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 is in charge of a project called the Longevity Dividend Initiative that makes a case for funding aging research to boost 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 cause, these diseases could be dealt with simultaneously, reducing these hideous afflictions by lowering all age-related disease risks at once, says Olshansky. The proof is now growing that this bolder, age-delaying approach could work.
Scientists have already successfully intervened in slowing aging in numerous animal species, and researchers say there is a good reason that the same 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 fascinating but doubtful 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 many diverse approaches have delivered promising results. Some existing drugs, such as the diabetes drug metformin, have unintentionally been shown to display anti-aging effects.
Various drugs are developing that mimic the processes that cause lab animals fed monitored calorie-restricted diets to enjoy extended lifespans.
Others imitate the effects of genes that manifest in long-lived people. One promising pharmaceutical in clinical trials is rapamycin, which is designed to help organ transplants and treat rare cancers. It has been demonstrated to expand the life of mice by 25%, the most significant achievement so far with a drug, and protect them against afflictions of aging like cancer and cognitive impairment.
A recent research study by Novartis, in healthy older subjects in Australia and New Zealand, uncovered a variant of the drug that augmented their response to the flu vaccine by 20%, impressive, since our immunity diminishes as we enter 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 designed for human trials are substances constructed around resveratrol, a substance found in red wine and has been featured on 60 Minutes.
Many researchers are convinced that it is the “French paradox” that French people have less heart disease despite eating fatty diets.
In 2003, Sinclair published evidence that significant doses of resveratrol extend the healthy lives of yeast cells. After Sirtris, a company co-founded by Sinclair proved that resveratrol-inspired compounds had beneficial effects in mice, it was bought by drug giant GlaxoSmithKline for $720m in 2008.
Although development has not flowed as smoothly as initially hoped, GSK is planning a significant clinical trial this year, says Sinclair. He is currently focused on another drug that has a contrasting way of stimulating the same pathway.
James Kirkland, a researcher who studies aging at the Mayo Clinic, says he is aware of around 20 drugs that extended the lifespan or health span of mice.
The goal is to begin testing humans, but scientific studies of aging are arduous due to our long lifespan. However, there are ways to avoid this like testing the drugs against rare diseases in older patients and searching for improvements in different conditions at the same time.
What the first drug breakthrough will be, and what it will do, is unresolved. Ideally, you could take just one pill that would impede aging in the entire body. But Kennedy notes that in mice treated with rapamycin, some age-related effects continue to advance,
“I don’t know any one drug that is going to do everything,” he says. As for beginning treatment, Kennedy envisions that in the future you could begin treatment between the age of 40 and 50 “because it keeps you healthy ten years longer.”
With treatments at their infancy, guesses as to how effective they will be are only that...guesses. But Kirkland says the aim in his field is to elevate health-span by two to three years in the next decade or more.
After that, what effects these drugs might have on extending our healthy lives is challenging.
A report by the UK Human Longevity Panel, based on interviews with several prominent 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 are the consequences if we all live to 120 or beyond? Society will start to look tremendously dissimilar.
“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 postponed, how many children would be in 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 examined some of these issues and concluded that there also may be psychological implications.
One of the “virtues of mortality” it pointed out is that it may force us to stop wasting time. Would knowing you had longer lead to extreme procrastination and delay your willingness to take action?
De Grey is aware of the potential challenges but insists society would evolve by having smaller families, and people controlling when to end their lives. Also, there are compelling questions about who would benefit if and when these anti-aging treatments become available.
Will it just be the ultra-wealthy or will the free market lower costs and make treatment within the reach of average people?
Will health insurers cover drugs that extend people's lives? The skyrocketing medical cost of caring for people in their twilight years would plummet if they remained healthier longer. However, what about the effect of longevity on pensions and state benefits.
But many insist these issues don’t invalidate the moral imperative.
If the time a 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 questions whether a longer lifespan means you will be healthier – what defines “healthy” or “healthier” mean in this circumstance?
But forget about the future. There are concerns presently for the new tech companies. Calico may get distracted by basic research, concerns de Grey; Venter’s approach may take decades to be useful due to problems with data gathering, thinks Barzilai; while the money from the Palo Alto prize is a meager amount for the desired result and potential societal impact, says Johnson.
Even if things don't go according to plan, we may still benefit.
Why might tech billionaires 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 are that rich, why not live longer to enjoy it? Second, there is a fortune to be made in the imminent gold rush. Third, and what he thinks is the most important, is ideology.
If your success has been created by “disruptive technologies,” what could be possibly more disrupting than freezing 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 to undergoing a human growth hormone (HGH) treatment regimen as part of his plan to reach 120. He also eats Paleo, has eliminated sugar, moderately drinks red wine, and jogs regularly. He has donated more than $6m to Aubrey de Grey’s Sens Foundation. His attitude towards 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 played a crucial role in bringing the new biotech company Calico to fulfillment. “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 in 2013 the foundation stated that it wouldstop funding further grants. Ellison remains mute about why, but there are reports that with the emergence of Calico, he felt his job was completed.
“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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