El Combate Antiedad De Silicon Valley
Los multimillonarios del valle tecnológico tienen un nuevo objetivo: duplicar nuestra esperanza de vida y plantar cara a dolencias como el párkinson o el cáncer. Hablamos de células madre, genética, virus y nanorrobots con los inversores y cientí!cos que lideran la búsqueda del elixir de la juventud
Texto ! María ovelar fotos ! Adam whitehead
Realización ! Svetlana tanakina
La comparativa podría ilustrar un manual de Biología del colegio. «El ser humano es como un coche, si reparamos el daño acumulado y lo mantenemos en buen estado, seguirá marchando correctamente. El organismo está programado para funcionar bien cuando el deterioro es mínimo. Arreglarlo cuando se ha roto es más complicado», opina Aubrey de Grey, un gerontólogo y biomédico inglés.
Las consecuencias de su teoría no son tan sencillas. Podrían cambiarlo todo. «La esperanza de vida indefinida no es un imposible. Todavía no sabemos cuánto más viviremos, pero ya se habla de hasta los 1.000 años», insiste este investigador de la Universidad de Cambridge y añade: «Envejecer se debe a la acumulación de los efectos negativos del metabolismo. Estos daños son los que nos terminan matando. Alargar la esperanza de vida pasa por prevenir enfermedades y gozar de buena salud».
No es el único científico empeñado en encontrar el elixir de la eterna juventud. Cynthia Kenyon, una bióloga molecular, el #sico surcoreano Joon Yun o la bióloga Anne Wojcicki, compiten en la misma carrera. Detrás de estos visionarios, que algunos tildan de locos, están varios multimillonarios de Silicon Valley. «Hay que pensar a lo grande, solo los optimistas decidirán el futuro», opina Peter Thiel, cofundador de PayPal y uno de los primeros inversores de Facebook.
Desde 2004, año en el que Thiel vendió PayPal a eBay, ha desembolsado millones de dólares en proyectos relacionados con la longevidad. La fortuna de este filántropo ronda los 2.200 millones de dólares (1.761 millones de euros), según Forbes. «Dicen que la muerte es algo natural, que es parte de la vida, no estoy de acuerdo. En mi opinión es un problema con solución científica», remata.
Google, Facebook, Napster y Netscape son otras de las compañías detrás de este objetivo. «Lo importante del fenómeno Silicon Valley es su interés por desentra- ñar los mecanismos moleculares del envejecimiento como vía para encontrar fármacos para enfermedades mortales», dice María Blasco, directora del Centro Nacional de Investigaciones Oncológicas (Cnio).
- ¿Cuáles son sus armas?
En estas empresas no solo hay científicos, también informáticos y emprendedores. Están acostumbrados a manejar millones de datos, a interpretarlos y gestionarlos con un fin y a traducirlos en tecnología. Su enfoque es diferente: aplican la filoso#a de las puntocom al problema de la muerte. «Los investigadores se centran en descubrir cosas, pero luego no saben qué hacer con sus conclusiones. Resultado: los avances no llegan. Los ingenieros, en cambio, somos más creativos y buscamos maneras de usar esa información», explica De Grey a S Moda.
- ¿Qué analizan? Algunas
empresas están estudiando la genética de las especies con una larga longevidad para prolongar la vida (Human Longevity); otras fabrican nanorrobótica microscópica capaz de reparar el organismo desde dentro (The Brain Preservation Foundation). También hay quien trabaja en reprogramar el ADN
años. Investigadores como Yun vaticinan que ya hay una persona entre nosotros que alcanzará los 1.000 años de edad: será un millennial (nacido entre 1982 y 2000)
millón de dólares. El concurso Palo Alto premia con esa suma a quien logre que vivamos mejor y de manera saludable durante más de 122 años.
más de vida. El equipo del CNIO logró alargar en ese porcentaje la vida de los ratones rejuveneciendo los telómeros con telomerasa, una enzima.
del ser humano para hacernos más resistentes (Genentech) y quien intenta digitalizar el cerebro basándose en la teoría de que la mente puede vivir más que nuestro cuerpo (Human Brain Project).
Neurociencia, células madre, organismos modificados genéticamente, virus…; su campo de investigación es muy extenso.
- Matrimonio de conveniencia. El idilio entre las tecnológicas y la ciencia se escribe en primera persona. Sobran las historias personales. Sean Parker, cofundador de Napster, padece alergias mortales. Además, algunos de sus familiares sufren trastornos autoinmunes. Parker ha donado millones a la industria farmacéutica contra estas dolencias. También contra el cáncer. Sergey Brin, padre de Google, porta una mutación del gen LRRK2 relacionada con una mayor incidencia del párkinson. Brin ha donado 150 millones de dólares a esta causa. También sobran los lazos matrimoniales. Varios multimillonarios de las puntocom están casados con científicas, como el propio Brin: su mujer, Anne Wojcicki, preside 23andMe, una firma especializada en tests genéticos. Otra pareja de oro: Mark Zuckenberg, el presidente de Facebook, y Priscilla Chan, pediatra en el Hospital General de San Francisco. Su Breakthrough Prize premia con tres millones de dólares anuales a investigadores que trabajen en estrategias para alargar la vida.
«Según nuestras investigaciones, la salud depende de la capacidad homeostática, del poder del organismo de curarse y autorregularse ante factores externos e internos como el estrés», explica Yun. Y añade: «Esta capacidad cae tras la senescencia reproductiva; estamos investigando cómo aumentarla».
Solo para inmortales.
«El sistema de salud cura la enfermedad y ayuda a vivir más, pero no trata el envejecimiento. Las desventajas: los costes son elevados y arruinarán y colapsarán el sistema. Además, la mayoría terminará muriendo de viejo. El !n, por tanto, debe ser vivir siempre con buena salud», opina Yun.
01. pulseras MÁGIcas
Dos gigantes tecnológicos se unieron en 2013 para «concebir procedimientos que permitan vivir más y de manera más saludable». Detrás de Calico (California Life Company), están el conocido buscador y Arthur D. Levinson, presidente de Apple. «Estudian el envejecimiento a nivel molecular porque están convencidos de que ese proceso es el causante de la mayoría de las enfermedades. Su misión es alargar el tiempo en el que el organismo es biológicamente joven», explica Blasco.
- Inhibir el gen. Esta empresa de biotecnología ha fichado a Cinthia Kenyon, una estrella de la biología molecular. La estadounidense logró duplicar la esperanza de vida del gusano caenorhabditis elegans. ¿Cómo? Inhibiendo el gen daf-2, conocido como «gen de la muerte». Kenyon, por supuesto, pretende repetir la hazaña en humanos.
- Partículas bondadosas. Aquí va otra de las iniciativas de Calico: el nanodiagnóstico. «Permitirá luchar contra cánceres mortales y complicados de detectar, como el de páncreas. Solo el 3% de los casos se descubren en su fase inicial», nos explican desde Google. El ingenio se basa en un wearable con un campo magnético. «Bastaría con ingerir una cápsula con nanopartículas magnéticas. Estas unidades pasarían al torrente sanguíneo. La idea es que estén diseñadas para adherirse a células cancerígenas. El wearable las atraería con su campo magnético y avisaría del problema», detallan.
02. banco de datos
Su victoria es paradigmática. Para muchos emprendedores de Silicon Valley, el genetista estadounidense Craig Venter es un ídolo.
La longevidad depende en un 20% de los genes y en un 80% de nuestro estilo de vida y de factores ambientales», nos recuerda Blasco
La panacea ‘antiaging’. «Ganó al Gobierno de EE UU en el proyecto de secuenciación del genoma humano [en 2001]. Ahora se ha propuesto adelantarse a Calico en la creación de fármacos que retrasen el envejecimiento y luchen contra enfermedades neurodegenerativas o cardiovasculares y contra el cáncer», explica Blasco. Una de las metas de su compañía Human Longevity (fundada en 2014) es crear un banco de un millón de secuencias del genoma humano antes del año 2020. Con esa información, entre la que se
AUBREY DEGREY , BIOMÉDICO , NOS CUENTA CÓMO PROLONGAR LA VIDA
¿El envejecimiento tiene solución médica?
Sí, como también la tienen el cáncer, el alzhéimer y otras enfermedades.
¿Qué terapia puede ayudar a esquivarlo?
Es mejor no hablar de un protocolo, sino de varios: la clave pasa por combinar tratamientos de células madre y genéticos con medicamentos.
Su idea es la siguiente: somos como un coche vintage, si invertimos tiempo en el mantenimiento, nuestra salud no fallará.
Todas las terapias de [mi fundación] SENS Research se centran en la prevención. El organismo está preparado para funcionar bien cuando acumula pocos daños. Así que solo necesitamos reparar las averías con frecuencia y bien para funcionar; como con un coche.
¿Qué proyecto de su institución destacaría? Estamos trabajando con una enzima bacteriana capaz de prevenir los ataques al corazón y los derrames. Esta sustancia rompe el colesterol oxidado, cuya acumulación produce arteriosclerosis. Estamos avanzando mucho, pero algunos descubrimientos tardarán 20 años en llegar.
¿Cuántos años más viviremos? Es difícil aventurar una cifra porque la muerte no depende de nuestra edad, sino de los factores que la causan. Pero… tal vez la persona que alcance los 1.000 años ya esté entre nosotros.
¿El negocio antiedad será el más grande del mundo? Lo será. Hoy se basa en fórmulas con una eficacia limitada y ya es enorme; imagine cuando lancemos productos en los que ya estamos trabajando, con muchos beneficios… Será un boom.
03. cantar victoria
Tienen sus detractores: «Me preocupa que la motivación de estos filántropos sea su ego y no el deseo por el bien plural», opinaba en el diario The Washington Post Laurie Zoloth, bioética de la Universidad de Northwestern.
- ¿Con!icto moral? Antaño, siempre según este rotativo, el Gobierno estadounidense financiaba dos tercios de la investigación científica; hoy, detrás de ese porcentaje están organismos privados. El argumento de los críticos: a estos multimillonarios les faltan escrúpulos y les sobra impaciencia, quieren resultados ya. Pero al contrario del Estado, no deben dar cuentas a nadie. Otro dato importante: los sueldos y ayudas proporcionados por estos mecenas triplican los de organismos como las universidades. Google, por ejemplo, ha invertido 750 millones de dólares en Calico. La alegoría de esta lucha contrarreloj es Peter Thiel, para quien la muerte es «el gran enemigo de la humanidad». Thiel ha financiado proyectos como un sistema de refrigeración de órganos (que permite conservarlos indefinidamente; de la Fundación SENS) y una tecnología capaz de fabricar hueso a través de células madre (para sustituir los rotos; de la compañía EpiBone).
- Made in Spain.«Aquí hay científicos que son líderes mundiales y que trabajan en desentrañar los mecanismos moleculares de envejecimiento celular. Carlos López-Otín, Manuel Serrano y yo publicamos un estudio en 2013 en la prestigiosa revista Cell», explica Blasco. En el mismo aseguraban que al combatir el envejecimiento se lucha contra el cáncer y otras enfermedades. «Mi equipo consiguió prolongar la vida de los ratones en un 40% gracias a la enzima de la telomerasa que recibió el premio Nobel de Medicina», añade.
04. ¿Pocas nueces?
Al final todo se reduce a la receta de la abuela. ¿Cuáles son las mejores estrategias para prevenir el envejecimiento y mitigar las arrugas, el sobrepeso y las enfermedades? «No existen los milagros, solo podemos hacer lo que nos aconsejaron nuestras madres: no fumar, no engordar, hacer deporte, comer de todo», responde De Grey.
- Palabra de experto. Cinthya Kenyon comprobó que el azúcar acortaba la vida de sus gusanos. El régimen de la estadounidense se basa desde entonces en alimentos con un índice glucémico bajo, como las manzanas, la avena o las lentejas. «Envejecemos y enfermamos a distintas velocidades debido a la genética y al estilo de vida. Cuanto más dañemos las células, más rápido quemaremos el tiempo de vida saludable», afirma Blasco. Y añade: «Los países más longevos son los nórdicos. También son los que tienen mayor índice de envejecimiento activo sin enfermedades».
- ¿Cuánto queda? «En los últimos 10 o 15 años se han publicado trabajos muy serios que demuestran la importancia del proceso de envejecimiento en la enfermedad. Pero los avances científicos van 10 o 20 años por delante de los beneficios que puedan aportar a la sociedad», nos recuerda Blasco.
En busca del santo grial
CUÁL ES EL ELIXIR PARA ALCANZAR LA ETERNIDAD?
Vacunas. Para eliminar tumores ya se emplean virus como el adenovirus (causante de resfriados) y la vaccinia (de la viruela) que penetran en las unidades cancerígenas.
Telómeros. «Rejuvenecer los telómeros de los ratones alarga su longevidad en un 40%; en humanos equivaldría a vivir hasta los 115 o 120 años», dice Blasco, del CNIO.
ADN. «Los mayores logros se han obtenido modificando los genes, pero aún no hay fármacos capaces de alterar todas esas rutas moleculares. Llegarán», predice la experta.
Medicación. Existen fármacos como la rapamicina y otros en desarrollo como la metformina (para la diabetes) que podrían retrasar el envejecimiento celular diez años.
Cuidar el reloj. «Los fallos moleculares, celulares y fisiológicos que llegan con la edad podrían deberse al mal funcionamiento de un reloj central que los sincroniza», afirma Yun.
Millón. El objetivo de la empresa Human Longevity es generar un banco de un millón de secuencias del genoma humano en 2020. Esta información ayudará a otras compañías a desarrollar medicina antiedad.
Fármacos. Se ha demostrado la eficacia de 20 medicamentos a la hora de alargar la esperanza de vida de los ratones, según The Guardian. Los estudios se centran ahora en comprobar los beneficios en humanos.
How to Make the Most of Longer Lives
The first person to live to 150 is alive today.
For many months I drove home past a financial-services billboard advertising this dramatic claim, followed by the punch line: “Let’s get ready for a longer retirement.”
The focus of that message, of course, is money—the size of our nest eggs. But the words highlight a far bigger challenge. In the early decades of the 21st century, we are pushing, rapidly, to extend our lives. But we’re paying scant attention to how we should make the most of that additional time.
Where are the innovations designed to make these bonus decades actually worth living? Aside from the mind-boggling prospect of saving for 50- or 75-year retirements, how do we make these new chapters both fulfilling for individuals and sustainable for society?
Life extension without social innovation is a recipe for dystopian disaster—what one critic characterizes as “the coming death shortage,” invoking images not only of endless (and unaffordable) retirements but of a society loaded down by a population explosion of the idle old.
As thousands of baby boomers each day surge into their 60s and 70s, it’s time to focus on enriching lives, not just lengthening them; on providing purpose and productivity, not just perpetuity.
We need to marshal imagination and ingenuity to devise new strategies for enhancing the whole range of experiences in later life, including education, faith, housing, work, finance and community.
ILLUSTRATION: ROBERT NEUBECKER FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL</>
Here are six ideas to launch us on that path.
Come up with a new name for this new chapter of life.
Naming a phase of life—giving it a coherent identity—does more than most people realize to make life, and society, work better. It creates a framework for constructing the pathways, products and policies required to make the most of this period. And so it should be with the new chapter taking shape between, roughly, ages 55 and 75.
Consider: One hundred years ago, we worried about a profusion of young people who were neither children nor adults. In 1904, G. Stanley Hall, the great American psychologist, helped put “adolescence” on the map with his seminal book of that name. Here, then, was a framework around which educators, legislators and entrepreneurs could begin developing new arrangements to make the most of that period.
Today, of course, we take “adolescence” for granted. But the invention of that stage of life acted as a stimulus for, among other breakthroughs, making high-school education widespread and expanding child-labor laws. (Although it did take several decades after Hall’s treatise for the “teenage” label to become ubiquitous.)
Let’s realize the same benefits for the new phase taking shape after midlife, starting with the nomenclature. What should we call this emerging period between our middle years and old age? Observers have suggested the “third chapter,” “adulthood II,” even “middlescence.” (Interestingly, G. Stanley Hall was among the first to suggest a new stage between our middle years and old age, describing it, poetically, as an Indian summer.)
Make the transition as easy as possible.
Remember the old rites of passage—the retirement party, the gold watch, the RV trip? As we create a new life chapter beyond midlife, we need to afford people the time and space to move to what’s next.
It’s common for young people to have four years of college to navigate the developmental passage from youth to adulthood, and now increasingly we are throwing in gap years before or after. But what about their parents? They’ve been laboring long hours and juggling the responsibilities of family, and are now heading into a stage of life that doesn’t have a name, much less a clear road map. There should be a gap year—or at least a few bridge months—for grown-ups to take a breather and figure out their next steps.
More individuals at this juncture seem to agree. Research from RAND Corp. reveals that a significant segment of the population is already retiring for a year or two, with every intention of returning to work following that respite. In other words, they are using the rubric of retirement to grant themselves a much-needed sabbatical—to take some time to rest up before readying for what comes next.
Still, theirs remains essentially a do-it-yourself process. It’s time to help make this post-midlife passage more efficient and suited to preparing individuals emotionally and spiritually for what lies ahead.
Some promising approaches are starting to emerge. Last fall, Rabbi Laura Geller of Los Angeles brought together a group of area congregations to think about what these new rites of passage might look like in the context of Judaism—observing that her religion’s life markers derive largely from biblical times, when lives were far shorter than today.
One answer: a kind of bar mitzvah for those moving into a new identity beyond midlife but far from the end of life, aimed at helping individuals reset their priorities and develop the right frame of mind for navigating their next phase, with particular focus on questions of leaving a legacy and how they might engage in “tikkun olam,” healing the world.
Another faith-infused effort is the Halftime Institute, which blends precepts of Christian faith with ideas from management gurus like Peter Drucker and Jim Collins, to help individuals navigate the passage “from success to significance.” Among other things, the Halftime Institute’s programs help members find their calling through developing “a personal plan for spiritual growth, a life mission statement and a clear action plan.”
Such rites and routes also have a place in our secular lives. I’ll soon be returning for my 35th college reunion, like so many other boomers who were part of the dramatic expansion of higher education in the 1960s and 1970s. Reunions are a tailor-made opportunity to help individuals graduate into the second half of adulthood, using to full advantage their return to a setting associated with new beginnings, a sense of possibility and community.
Already a number of higher-education institutions are offering reunion workshops on the subject of “what’s next.” Others have gone further. Northwestern University conducted a two-part webinar for alumni helping them consider and prepare for second acts aimed at improving prospects for future generations, featuring the accounts of classmates who had navigated that journey.
Design schools for the second half of life.
Nearly 50 years ago, we pioneered lifelong learning for seniors—a notable advance, but let’s face it: All too often these programs are great for mental stimulation but ill-suited to launching individuals into new life chapters. Catching up on the Renaissance masters or mapping your family’s genealogy can take you only so far.
What we need now is school designed for the second half of life, helping people retool to continue to earn an income, maintain a sense of engagement, and adapt to fresh challenges by teaching them new skills and helping them plan their encore careers.
In recent years, two elite universities—Harvard and Stanford—have broken important new ground, introducing yearlong programs to fill these needs. Both involve reflection, learning, interaction with colleagues, and the chance to explore options for a next act of purpose and productivity. Both offer an opportunity to customize an interdisciplinary course of study with an eye to helping students launch second acts as social entrepreneurs or move into new organizational roles drawing on past experience in creative ways.
But this is only a beginning, albeit a promising one.
What’s warranted now is a far more broad-based effort. We need a system of easily accessible and affordable opportunities for all those interested in working beyond traditional retirement age, one that includes more community-college and continuing-education options, and that builds on existing trends in education innovation, including online courses and the competency-based movement to provide credit for experience and learning acquired outside the classroom.
There’s some movement to make that happen: In March, two dozen leaders from across higher education came together at New York University to discuss democratizing and expanding their offerings for individuals moving beyond midlife. If they succeed, these trailblazers might not only further the reinvention of school for the second half of life but rewrite the educational script entirely.
After all, why is it that we load up all our higher education and higher-education spending in life’s first two dozen years, when individuals have so many decades stretching out in front of them? It’s hard to know at 20 what we’ll want or need to know at 50 or 60. That’s why we should develop an approach to learning that allows for multiple opportunities to renew and retrain across the extended life course of the 21st century.
Figure out how to finance the bonus years.
Along with fashioning new kinds of education and career pathways, we should help ensure that Americans are able to pay for them—and for all those years being added to the lifespan.
Financial-services companies could provide a great service through creating and marketing what might be called individual purpose accounts, or IPAs—a kind of 529 savings plan for grown-ups. Such plans could help subsidize the new pathways to un-retirement, funding further education and other learning opportunities. They might also complement individual retirement accounts and related savings vehicles for retirement itself.
Another potentially far-reaching idea: Allow people 50 and older to take a single early year of Social Security to retool for their next career, whether by going back to school or doing an internship, in exchange for working an actuarially adjusted period later before receiving full benefits.
Doing so promises a win-win: helping individuals bolster their finances through working longer, while also enabling society to realize the talent windfall present in the older population, especially in high-growth fields like health care. Some people will earn a robust living, while others will use their new skills in part-time or flexible jobs that fill a financial gap and allow them to delay dipping into retirement funds.
Help the generations come together.
For half a century, we’ve done much to keep young and old apart, especially in the realm of housing. Yet age-segregated housing for retirees runs against the grain of everything we know about healthy development in the post-midlife period, a time when connections with younger generations are linked to higher rates of happiness for older people. What we need instead: housing strategies that help to forge and solidify bonds among the generations.
One compelling example is Bridge Meadows. This housing development in Portland, Ore., brings together families raising foster children with older people of modest means, who receive reduced rents in return for volunteer work with the adoptive families living in the community: everything from baby sitting and playing catch with children to working on arts-and-crafts projects and making meals. It’s an arrangement that makes both economic and common sense, filling the fundamental human need for community and connection.
I’d like to see more housing development animated by that same compelling vision—especially as more families show an interest in moving in together, sometimes with three or four generations residing under the same roof. (A 2011 study by the nonprofit Generations United found that approximately one in six Americans resides in a multigenerational household, a 10% jump since the start of the recession.) We now likewise have an expanding cohort of individuals without children or grandchildren of their own, along with millions who don’t live anywhere near their younger relatives. These individuals might well be drawn to, and benefit from, such intergenerational settings.
While we’re at it, we should create a Legacy Corps: one that recruits millions of older people to be extra “grandparents” for young people in early-learning programs and mentors for children growing up facing tough odds. In essence, it could be a new kind of Peace Corps for the generation that the Peace Corps was designed for in the first place. There’s a healthy dose of self-interest in such an enterprise for the boomers, who will be dependent on these young people as they move into their elderly years.
Get creative people thinking about how to improve our extra years.
Innovations such as those I’ve just described have drawn little attention from investors to date. As a result, most remain small in scale, if not solely in the realm of ideas.
Of 35 grants made by the federal government’s Social Innovation Fund since 2010, only one has directly targeted aging. Philanthropy isn’t doing any better. According to data from the Foundation Center, less than 2% of foundation money—often a powerful lever for social innovation—goes into aging.
But there are promising signs in the U.K., where a new £50 million ($78 million) investment from that country’s Big Lottery Fund is being used to improve the quality of life for older adults, including plans to support innovative initiatives in work, health and community engagement. We would be smart to develop our own version.
Prizes are another great option for attracting talent to tackle the issues surrounding second acts. A $1 million Palo Alto Longevity Prize, with a who’s who of Silicon Valley backing it, has been offered for the next big breakthrough in extending life. Why not use similar vehicles to achieve the same result in social innovation aimed at enriching the later years?
The X Prize, for instance, is aimed at big innovations that benefit mankind. I’d like to see a prize for the innovation that does the most to increase the productivity and contribution of older people to society—especially since the founder of the X Prize Foundation, Peter Diamandis, is co-founder of the Human Longevity Inc. startup (along with genome pioneer J. Craig Venter), aimed at “extending the healthy human lifespan.”
Does this agenda sound daunting? Here’s reassuring news. We’ve seen this challenge before—and met it.
In 1961, John F. Kennedy took office eight days after the first White House Conference on Aging. Two years later, President Kennedy gave his most important speech on aging, declaring that America was on the brink of a longevity revolution, filled with promise but marked by a gap: We had added “years to life,” he pronounced; now it was time to add “life to those years.”
In impressively short order, we closed that era’s gap, through first conceiving the idea of leisure-focused “golden years,” then proceeding to make this marketing slogan a cornerstone of the American dream. In a remarkable period of social invention, we fashioned senior centers and retirement communities, Elderhostel (now Road Scholar) and Institutes for Learning in Retirement, Medicare and the Older Americans Act. We not only enriched those later years, but set in motion the conditions that contributed to longer, healthier, more active lives.
Now, as we prepare for the sixth White House Conference on Aging, taking place next month, and as the years added to life continue to trend upward, let’s rise to the occasion again, realizing the true promise of longevity for individuals and for nations.
And let’s do it in time for the onrushing wave of baby boomers—but, most of all, for those young people projected to live even longer. I hope that when they sail by the virtual billboards of tomorrow, propelled by their self-driving cars, they will be greeted not by scary longevity scenarios but by an inviting vision of their own later years.
Mr. Freedman is the founder and chief executive officer of Encore.org, a nonprofit organization working to promote encore careers, and author, most recently, of “The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlife.” He can be reached at email@example.com.
The Search for Immortality
Wednesday 3 June 2015 04.19 EST
Deploying their immense wealth, business and tech impresarios are investing
in their next disruption: ending death.
BY BENJAMIN REEVES
Thank you for calling the Alcor Life Extension Foundation. This call may be recorded. If you are reporting the death or the near death of an Alcor member, please press two now.
Anti-aging research is the next big thing in healthcare. Companies such as Calico and Human Longevity, both based in California, are pioneering genetic and pharmacological techniques to reduce the ravages of time on the human body. At the fringes of science, Alcor, an Arizona-based nonprofit, vitrifies dead people in hopes of reviving them at a later date, while Russian internet mogul Dmitry Itskov seeks to create cybernetic bodies to host human consciousness.
Aging “is one of the great mysteries of biology,” says Dr. Thomas Rando, director of the Glenn Center for the Biology of Aging at Stanford University. “If we begin to understand what the process of decline associated with aging is, and if we can slow that by targeting those mechanisms, then potentially one could alter its course.”
The idea that death can be forestalled by a magical substance, usually the mystical waters of the Fountain of Youth, dates back at least to the Greek historian Herodotus in the 5th century BC. The “elixir of life” also appears in ancient Chinese and Indian legends and in alchemical texts from medieval Europe. The Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León was thought to have quested throughout the New World in the 16th century in search of the fabled Fountain of Youth.
As living standards improved in the 20th century, the quest for eternal life was subsumed into modern medicine’s fight against infectious disease. The average American’s life expectancy rose from 70 in 1960 to almost 79 in 2012, according to the World Bank. Yet little attention was paid to extending good health into old age. Rather than dying at 70, people now live to be far older, but often with a lesser quality of life.
Serious anti-aging research only started about a decade ago. “Improving health is the goal, and longevity might be the consequence of the improvement,” says Dr. Joon Yun, president of hedge fund Palo Alto Investors and sponsor of the Palo Alto Longevity Prize, which funds anti-aging research.
At the time, scientists interested in treating or preventing the impairments of aging were often seen as either out of touch or just plain kooky. “I remember talking to some people from [the healthcare company] Roche about 15 years ago about this notion of drugs that might target the aging process,” Rando says. “They thought that was ridiculous.”
Two trends have since proved to be the foundation for longevity research: new discoveries in genomics and the ability to share information over the internet. But for the most part, longevity research has not been funded by conventional research institutes or biotech companies—as great as the payoff could be, there’s little to no short-term return. Instead, some of the world’s wealthiest and most visible entrepreneurs have taken up the challenge. Some have a background in medicine, but most of these investors come from the worlds of technology and engineering. That makes more than just financial sense. “It’s clear now that biology is an engineering project, whereas before that wasn’t so obvious,” says Sonia Arrison, author of 100 Plus, a book about the effects of superannuation.
The prospects are encouraging: Participants in longevity research say they expect rapid gains in a matter of years and decades. It’s not unreasonable to think that today’s children could regularly crack 100 or even 120.
“It’s the holy grail of healthcare, extending a human lifespan,” says Dr. Peter Diamandis, cofounder of Human Longevity and CEO of the XPrize Foundation, which awards financial gifts for scientific and technological advancements. Yet there’s a downside to the prospect of extreme longevity: If people don’t maintain good health into their senescence, longevity could place enormous strain on economies and societies.
And, of course, philosophical questions abound. What do highly successful people like Sergey Brin, Larry Ellison or Peter Thiel—or anyone else for that matter—gain by living a few years more? How will added longevity change age-old notions of the phases of life? Will longevity become, even more than it already is, a gift largely conferred on the wealthy?
The research will not pause to answer these questions. Here are six successful entrepreneurs who have turned their energy—and their wealth—to the project of longer life.
DR. JOON YUN
Managing partner and president,
Palo Alto Investors Sponsor, Palo Alto Longevity Prize
“Nature endowed the greatest healthcare system in the world: It’s called our bodies,” Yun says, explaining why he endowed the $1 million Palo Alto Longevity Prize. “Our body is an incredible system that is able to self-heal.” Yet beginning in middle age, “it is more vulnerable to the slings and arrows of life.”
Yun, 47, graduated from Harvard with a degree in evolutionary biology before getting his MD at Duke and joining Stanford’s clinical faculty. He signed on with Palo Alto Investors, a $1 billion healthcare investment fund, in 1998. His goal? To extend what he calls “healthspan”—our healthy years before we begin to decline—into middle and old age; if longer life is a consequence, so much the better.
Under the current healthcare regime, Yun says, “we have been helping people live longer and stronger lives, but the trajectory is unsustainable. This idea of helping people live longer without solving the underlying cause of aging lends itself to exponential increases in healthcare spending.
“This is an area of relative market dysfunction,” he adds. Biotech companies and healthcare providers are incentivized to treat diseases, not prevent them. Compounding the problem, increased healthspan is hard to measure; it requires long time spans, discouraging companies with short-term goals from pursuing it.
Yun created the Longevity Prize to incentivize research in two areas: restoration of the body’s ability to repair and maintain itself, and extending the lifespan of a mammal by 50 percent. Preventing people from getting sick as they age, Yun says, is about “getting a lot more healthcare value for a lot less money.”
Founder, New Media Stars, 2045 Initiative
Itskov’s Facebook page displays a piece of promotional art from James Cameron’s 2009 movie, Avatar, with Itskov’s face pasted over it. The movie was about futuristic soldiers who transfer their minds to artificial bodies. Itskov, who launched Russian internet company New Media Stars in 1999, must have really liked Avatar, because in 2011 he founded the 2045 Initiative, a foundation that aims to transfer human consciousness into cybernetic bodies.
Itskov, 34, has plotted the evolution of humanity from carbon-based life form to liberated machine sentience. By 2020, according to his website, he foresees the “widespread use of affordable android ‘avatars’ controlled by a ‘brain-computer’ interface.” By 2025, an “autonomous life-support system for the human brain linked to a robot ‘avatar’ will save people whose body is completely worn out.” By 2045, “substance-independent minds will receive new bodies with capacities far exceeding those of ordinary humans.”
To get there, Itskov is investing in startups creating avatar technology, while the 2045 Initiative is designed to coordinate and support scientific advancement in the field.
Cofounder, Google backer, Calico
On January 14, 2013, Brin posted on his Google+ page a photo of jellyfish suspended in the limpid water of a lake in Palau; because some jellyfish do not appear to die, they have become a focus of aging research. “No place in the world has made me consider my place in the universe like Jellyfish Lake,” Brin wrote. “Millions of creatures all drifting seemingly aimlessly, searching for light, for the energy to spawn so generations of their offspring may do the same years later. I take a small breath, sink toward the bottom, watching them in wonder and think, are we really so different?”
This kind of thinking led Brin and Larry Page, his Google cofounder, to launch Calico in 2013 with money from the company’s venture capital arm, Google Ventures. (Brin is said to be considerably more involved. One possible reason why: Brin, 41, has a genetic mutation, LRRK2, which is thought to substantially increase the probability of developing Parkinson’s disease.) Calico’s stated goal is “to harness advanced technologies to increase our understanding of the biology that controls lifespan.” The company announced a $1.5 billion coinvestment with pharmaceutical company AbbVie in September 2014 to construct an R&D lab “focused on aging and age-related diseases, including neurodegeneration and cancer.”
Calico’s approach is twofold. In the short term, the company is developing drugs to treat age-related diseases; in the long run, Calico hopes to gain a larger, more holistic understanding of why humans age and to fight aging using pharmacology.
Calico is in a “unique situation in being able to invest in basic aging research without having to turn a profit for a long time,” Stanford’s Rando says. “So there’s the potential there to do something really big.”
Executive chairman and CTO, Oracle
Founder, Ellison medical Foundation
Ellison, one of the most intriguing figures in Silicon Valley, gave more than $350 million for anti-aging research from 1997 to 2015, making him by far one of the largest sponsors of the field. With no tangible results in sight, he stopped making new grants in 2013, and has never publicly explained why. The foundation, however, still operates.
When Ellison, now 70, established the foundation, “there wasn’t enough traction to allow any success in the field,” says Dr. Kevin Lee, executive director of the Ellison Medical Foundation. The research grants provided by the foundation subsequently “defined this as a problem that wasn’t being addressed.” Ellison’s support, Lee says, helped move anti-aging research from the scientific fringe to the mainstream. “The foundation’s timing was perfect in providing the seeding for this field to develop.”
Director of engineering, Google cofounder, Singularity University
Kurzweil is the eccentric uncle of Silicon Valley. He invented the CCD flatbed scanner and a machine that reads text to the blind. The recipient of 20 honorary doctorates, he cofounded Singularity University in Silicon Valley in 2007. Its mission: to become the epicenter of theorizing about the “singularity,” the moment when artificial intelligence will surpass human minds, allegedly leading to a tech utopia. Kurzweil believes that anti-aging research, nutrition and nanotechnology, among other things, will “enable humans to live indefinitely,” according to a note he wrote for the Methuselah Foundation website.
A major donor to the research-oriented Methuselah Foundation, Kurzweil, 67, is also a member of the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, a nonprofit that cryonically preserves people when they die in the hope of one day bringing them back to life.
“What’s the harm in rationalizing death?” Kurzweil wrote in 2004. “The harm is that in rationalizing something that is tragic, we fail to take the urgent action needed to avoid the tragedy.” As human lifespans grow, Kurzweil adds, “we are also going to merge with our technology and expand our cognitive and emotional capabilities, as well as the depth and richness of our intellectual, relational, artistic, sexual and emotional experiences many-fold.”
Cofounder, PayPal, Palantir Technologies
Backer, SENS Research Foundation, the Methuselah Foundation
There are three approaches to death, Thiel recently told the Guardian: “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.”
Thiel, 47, has said that he plans to live to be 120. He runs, takes human growth hormone, adheres to a Paleo diet and eschews sugar. He has also donated at least $6 million to the SENS Research Foundation and the Methuselah Foundation, both longevity-research projects started by a Cambridge-educated biologist named Aubrey de Grey.
“There’s 100,000 people or more dying every single day of aging or age-related causes,” de Grey says. “Mostly dying after a long period of decline and dependence and disease and general misery. So, you know, every single day that I bring the defeat of aging forward—which I probably do about once a month—I’m saving 100,000 lives. That’s pretty motivating.”
Thiel said in a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session last year that he prefers to invest in medical and research ventures when they resemble “software companies—a group of really committed founders with a clear vision of what they’re trying to do.”
“The key thing about Peter Thiel is he has a high threshold of reputation tolerance,” the Methuselah Foundation’s CEO, David Gobel, says. “There is a very large number of millionaires and billionaires who are legitimately terrified of being pilloried and burned at the stake in the media, because it’s happened to them and it has consequences… I think he’s made a rational calculation that his reputation is not worth as much as the potential.”
Some longevity organizations focus on bringing people back to life, others on keeping you from dying in the first place.
HUMAN LONGEVITY, INC.
A collaboration between cofounders Dr. Peter Diamandis, Dr. Robert Hariri and pioneering geneticist Dr. Craig Venter (see Q&A with Craig Venter), HLI may be the only serious competitor to Google Ventures’ Calico. The company focuses on extending life through genomics and stem cell therapies, and specifically targets cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases and cancer.
HLI is “building the largest genome-sequencing facility on the planet,” Diamandis says. It will also compile microbiome, MRI and metabolism data. “It’s just a massive amount of data that would have been impossible to manipulate, fathom or mine even just five years ago,” Diamandis adds. “We’re targeting millions of data sets from millions of individuals from around the world, from across ages, from across disease groups and mining that to extract knowledge and information.”
In January, the company announced a gene-sequencing agreement with biotech giant Genentech, which hopes to use Human Longevity’s findings to speed the discovery of new drugs.
ALCOR LIFE EXTENSION FOUNDATION
Alcor vitrifies people after they die in the hopes of bringing them back to life in the future. Members’ bodies are infused with a “cryoprotective solution, a kind of medical antifreeze” after they die, Alcor CEO Max More says, before being cooled and stored in liquid nitrogen.
The cost? At least $200,000 for the entire body or $80,000 for just the brain, and it can be paid using life insurance benefits. According to More, many wealthy members set up a trust so they have a nest egg if and when they wake up.
Live for ever: Scientists say they’ll soon extend life ‘well beyond 120’
Sunday 11 January 2015 03.59 EST
In Palo Alto in the heart of Silicon Valley, hedge fund manager Joon Yun is doing a back-of-the-envelope calculation. According to US social security data, he says, the probability of a 25-year-old dying before their 26th birthday 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 – statistically speaking – live 1,000 years. Yun finds the prospect tantalising and even believable. Late last year he launched a $1m 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 ageing” and get people to live, healthily, more or less indefinitely. His Palo Alto Longevity Prize, which 15 scientific teams have so far entered, will be awarded in the first instance for restoring vitality and extending lifespan in mice by 50%. But Yun has deep pockets and expects to put up more money for progressively greater feats. He says this is a moral rather than personal quest. Our lives and society are troubled by growing numbers of loved ones lost to age-related disease and suffering extended periods of decrepitude, which is costing economies. Yun has an impressive list of nearly 50 advisers, including scientists from some of America’s top universities.
Yun’s quest – a modern version of the age old dream of tapping the fountain of youth – is emblematic of the current enthusiasm to disrupt death sweeping Silicon Valley. Billionaires and companies are bullish about what they can achieve. 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”. Though much mystery surrounds the new biotech company, it seems to be looking in part 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 normal, 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. It isn’t aimed at developing anti-ageing drugs or competing with Calico, says Venter. But it plans to create a giant database of 1 million human genome sequences by 2020, including from supercentenarians. Venter says that data should shed important new light on what makes for a longer, healthier life, and expects others 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 centre at the middle of everything.”
In an office not far from Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, with a beard reaching almost to his navel, Aubrey de Grey is enjoying the new buzz about defeating ageing. For more than a decade, he has been on a crusade to inspire the world to embark on a scientific quest to eliminate ageing and extend healthy lifespan indefinitely (he is on the Palo Alto Longevity Prize board). It is a difficult job because he considers the world to be in a “pro-ageing trance”, happy to accept that ageing is unavoidable, when the reality is that it’s simply a “medical problem” that science can solve. Just as a vintage car can be kept in good condition indefinitely with periodic preventative maintenance, so there is no reason why, in principle, the same can’t be true of the human body, thinks de Grey. We are, after all, biological machines, he says.
His claims about the possibilities (he has said the first person who will live to 1,000 years is probably already alive), and some unconventional and unproven ideas about the science behind ageing, have long made de Grey unpopular with mainstream academics studying ageing. But the appearance of Calico and others suggests the world might be coming around to his side, he says. “There is an increasing number of people realising that the concept of anti-ageing medicine that actually 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 chief scientific officer at his own charity, 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, and money from his own inheritance, he funds about $5m of research annually. Some is done in-house, the rest sponsored at outside institutions. (Even his critics say he funds some good science.)
De Grey isn’t the only one who sees a new flowering of anti-ageing 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 Centre, who recently wrote a report on the topic looking at the scientific and ethical dimensions of radical life extension. “Serious people are doing research in this area and serious thinkers are thinking about this .”
Although funding pledges have been low compared to early hopes, billionaires – not just from the technology industry – have long supported research into the biology of ageing. Yet it has mostly been aimed at extending “healthspan”, the years in which you are free of frailty or disease, rather than lifespan, although an obvious effect is that it would also be extended (healthy people after all live longer).
“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, founded in 1997 by tech billionaire Larry Ellison, and which has been the field’s largest private funder, spending $45m annually. (The Paul F Glenn Foundation for Medical Research is another.) Whereas much biomedical research concentrates on trying to cure individual diseases, say cancer, scientists in this small field hunt something larger. They investigate the details of the ageing process with a view to finding ways to prevent it at its root, thereby fending off the whole slew of diseases that come along with ageing. Life expectancy has risen in developed countries from about 47 in 1900 to about 80 today, largely due to advances in curing childhood diseases. But those longer lives come with their share of misery. Age-related chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, stroke and Alzheimer’s are more prevalent than ever.
The standard medical approach – curing one disease at a time – only makes that worse, says Jay Olshansky, a sociologist at the University of Chicago School of Public Health who runs a project called the Longevity Dividend Initiative, which makes the case for funding ageing 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 tackling ageing at the root they could be dealt with as one, reducing frailty and disability by lowering all age-related disease risks simultaneously, says Olshansky. Evidence is now building that this bolder, age-delaying approach could work. Scientists have already successfully intervened in ageing in a variety of animal species and researchers say there is 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 Ageing, adding that five years ago the scientific consensus was that ageing 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 any more, 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.
Reason for optimism comes after several different approaches have yielded promising results. Some existing drugs, such as the diabetes drug metformin, have serendipitously turned out to display age-defying effects, for example. Several drugs are in development that mimic 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 normally used to aid 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 ageing including cancer and neurodegeneration.
A recent clinical trial by Novartis, in healthy elderly volunteers in Australia and New Zealand, found a variant of the drug enhanced their response to flu vaccine by 20% – our immunity to flu being something that declines with old age.
“[This was] the first [trial] to take a drug suspected to slow ageing, and examine whether it slows or reverses a property of ageing in older, healthy individuals,” says Kennedy. Other drugs set to be tested in humans are compounds inspired by resveratrol, a compound found in red wine. Some scientists believe it is behind the “French paradox” that French people have a low incidence of heart disease despite eating comparatively rich 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 favourable 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.
One of the more unusual approaches being tested is using blood from the young to reinvigorate the old. The idea was borne out in experiments which showedblood plasma from young mice restored mental capabilities of old mice. A human trial under way is testing whether Alzhemier’s patients who receive blood transfusions from young people experience a similar effect. Tony Wyss-Coray, a researcher at Stanford leading the work, says that if it works he hopes to isolate factors in the blood that drive the effect and then try to make a drug that does a similar thing. (Since publishing his work in mice, many “healthy, very rich people” have contacted Wyss-Coray wondering if it might help them live longer.)
James Kirkland, a researcher who studies ageing at the Mayo Clinic, says he knows of about 20 drugs now – more than six of which had been written up in scientific journals – that extended the lifespan or healthspan of mice. The aim is to begin tests in humans, but clinical studies of ageing are difficult because of the length of our lives, though there are ways around this such as testing the drugs against single conditions in elderly patients and looking for signs of improvements in other conditions at the same time. Quite what the first drug will be, and what it will do, is unclear. Ideally, you might take a single pill that would delay ageing 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 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 10 years longer”.
With treatments at such an early stage, guesses as to when they might arrive or how far they will stretch human longevity can only be that. Many researchers refuse to speculate. But Kirkland says the informal ambition in his field is to increase healthspan by two to three years in the next decade or more. (The EU has an official goal of adding two years to healthspan by 2020). Beyond that, what effects these drugs might have on extending our healthy lives is even harder to predict. A recent report by UK Human Longevity Panel, a body of scientists convened by insurer Legal and General, 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 believing that there was no limit.”
Nir Barzilai, director of the Institute for Ageing 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 is one of the optimists. “I don’t see any absolute biological limit on human age,” he says, arguing that cellular immortality – in effect running the clock backwards – should be possible. “We can expect biological processes to eventually get rid of years. Whether this will happen this century or not, I can’t tell you”. Such ideas are just speculation for now. But John Troyer, who studies death and technology at the Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath, says we need to take them seriously. “You want to think about it now before you are in the middle of an enormous mess.”
What happens if we all live to 100, 110, 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 labour force or find houses,” says Troyer. And, with ageing delayed, how many children are we talking about as being a normal 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 reportlooked at some of these issues suggesting there may be repercussions for individual psychology, too.
One of the “virtues of mortality” it pointed out is that it may instill a desire to make each day count. Would knowing you had longer to live decrease your willingness to make the most of life? De Grey acknowledges potential practical challenges but cheerily says society would adapt, for example by having fewer children, and with people able to decide when to end their lives. There are pressing questions too about who would benefit if and when these interventions become available. Will it just be the super rich or will market incentives – who wouldn’t want it? – push costs down and make treatment affordable?
Will Britain’s NHS or health insurers in other countries pay for drugs that extend peoples lives? The medical cost of caring for people in their twilight years would fall if they remained healthier longer, but delayed ageing will also mean more people draw pensions and state benefits. But advocates say these challenges don’t negate the moral imperative. If the period of healthy life can be extended, then doing so is the humanitarian 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? he asks.
The far future aside, there are challenges for the new tech entrants. Calico may get too side-tracked by basic research, worries de Grey; Venter’s approach may take years to bear fruit because of issues about data gathering, thinks Barzilai; while the money on offer from the Palo Alto prize is a paltry sum for the demanded outcome and potential societal impact, says Johnson. Still, history reminds us, even if they don’t succeed, we may still benefit.
Aviator Charles Lindbergh tried to cheat death by devising ways to replace human organs with machines. He didn’t succeed, but one of his contraptions did develop into the heart-lung machine so crucial for open-heart surgery. In the quest to defeat ageing, even the fruits of failure may be bountiful.
Tech billionaires who want to make death an elective
Why might tech zillionaires choose to fund life extension research? Three reasons reckons Patrick McCray, a historian of modern technology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. First, if you had that much money wouldn’t you want to live longer to enjoy it? Then there is money to be made in them there hills. But last, and what he thinks is the heart of the matter, is ideology. If your business and social world is oriented around the premise of “disruptive technologies”, what could be more disruptive than slowing down or “defeating” ageing? “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.
Peter Thiel, 47, PayPal co-founder and Facebook’s first investor, recently told Bloomberg Television he took human growth hormone (HGH) as part of his regime to reach 120 (there is no evidence it works and it can even cause harm). 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, dedicated to extending the human lifespan. In a recent interview he identified three main ways to approach death. “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, is known for his love of special projects likeGoogle Glass and CEO Larry Page has credited him for helping bring its new biotech company Calico to fruition. “We’re tackling ageing, 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. An extra reason for Brin’s interest may be that he discovered in 2008 he carries a genetic mutation that gives him a greater likelihood of developing Parkinson’s disease. Bryn’s wife is co-founder of personal genomics company 23andMe.
Larry Ellison, 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 the Ellison Medical Foundation in 1997 to support ageing research and has spent more than $335m in the area, though it announced in 2013 that it would no longer fund further grants in the area. Ellison remains tight lipped about why, but there are reports that, with the emergence of Calico, he felt that he’d done his bit.
“A lot of people spend their 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 ageing using advances in genomics and stem cell therapies in March 2014. Would Venter like to beat death? “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 thirtysomething Russian multi-millionaire internet mogul who founded an online media company New Media Stars. His 2045 Initiative, so-called for the year he hopes to complete it, aims to “create technologies enabling the transfer of a individual’s personality to a more advanced non-biological carrier, and extending life, including to the point of immortality”. Though not from Silicon Valley himself, his ideas draw on those of 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, no longer necessitating the need for our bodies.
Silicon Valley Investor Backs $1 Million Prize to End Death
By Ashlee Vance | September 09, 2014
Life is like a box of chocolates, and that bugs the heck out of Silicon Valley.
On Tuesday a group of doctors, investors, and researchers announced the Palo Alto Longevity Prize. The latest attempt to crack the code of life, it will award $1 million to teams of scientists that demonstrate a reversal of the aging process in test animals. About 10 teams have already signed up to compete for the prize, including researchers from nearby Stanford University, as well as the Texas Heart Institute in Houston and Washington University in St. Louis. “We spend more than $2 trillion per year on health care and do a pretty good job helping people live longer, but ultimately you still die,” says Dr. Joon Yun, a doctor, investor and the main backer of the prize. “The better plan is to end health care altogether.”
Mankind has spent centuries obsessing about ending aging for obvious reasons. Of late, Silicon Valley has emerged as one of the places most interested in the topic. Google (GOOG), for example, has created a biotech research house called Calico to develop therapies that may increase lifespans. It also employs Ray Kurzweil, who has proposed downloading one’s brain into a machine as a means of cheating death. And just last month, a Hyatt hotel in Silicon Valley played host to the Rejuvenation Biotechnology Conference at which top scientists discussed “emerging regenerative medicine solutions for the diseases of aging.”
In the case of the Palo Alto Longevity Prize, the antiaging focus will be studying and altering heart rate variability. HRV is the measure of the change in time from one heartbeat to the next. Instead of looking at a person’s average heart beat of, say, 60 beats per minute, HRV monitors performance at the next layer down, providing a better indicator of how a person is reacting to stress or injury. A $500,000 prize will go to a team that can take an older mammal and bring its HRV characteristics back to those of a young adult mammal; another $500,000 will go to a team that can extend an animal’s lifespan by 50 percent.
Participants will be able to review the rules and register to compete until January 15 of next year. A number of research groups were consulted about the effort ahead of its official announcement and have already signed on to have a go at winning the prize. Their approaches include experiments with stem cells, gene modification, and electrical stimulation, all aimed at tweaking HRV.
Yun, a radiologist by training, served on the clinical staff at Stanford Hospital. He’s also spent about 15 years working as an investor at Palo Alto Investors, a hedge fund with more than $1 billion in assets that has focused on health-care companies. The firm is known for making on average one large investment per year. One of its recent successes was InterMune, a biotech company that Roche (ROG) just agreed to acquire for $8.3 billion in cash. Palo Alto Investors had put $200 million into the company.
According to Yun, the health-care system has not focused enough on restoring the body’s homeostatic capacity, its ability to operate at a healthy equilibrium. “Your intrinsic homeostasis erodes at 40,” he says. “Hangovers that used to last a day now last three days. Coughs drag on for months. You come off a roller coaster, and you feel awful, because you can’t self center and your blood vessels don’t recalibrate fast enough.” The goal with the prize would be to find a way to reverse these degrading processes and return the body to a more youthful state.
Yun says his father-in-law recently passed away at the age of 68, and this, combined with conversations with his friends, inspired him to tackle aging. “I come from an old school Korean farming family where you were just expected to till the farms and die,” he says. “There was something grand and dignified in that. But after my wife’s father died of something pretty preventable, I asked myself, ‘Why am I waiting to do something about this?'”
The idea to offer a prize came from Yun’s nanny, who is an acquaintance of Google’s Chairman Eric Schmidt and his wife Wendy. The Schmidts have sponsored, among other things, a $2 million prize to study the health of the ocean.
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“Based on the rapid rate of biomedical breakthroughs, we believe the question is not if we can crack the aging code, but when will it happen,” says Keith Powers, the producer of the prize group. Yun has set aside a large chunk of money to fund not just this initial prize but subsequent attempts at solving the aging puzzle. “The prize is winnable, but I don’t think we will hit a grand slam on the first one,” he says. “I expect to be writing lots of checks.”
Vance is a technology writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in Palo Alto, CA. Follow him on Twitter @valleyhack.
$1 million prize offered in scientific contest to find fountain of youth
Dracula sank his fangs into people’s necks looking for it. Greek gods got it from ambrosia. Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de Leon set out to find it and discovered Florida instead, or so legend tells us.
Now, a former Washingtonian who heads a California venture fund has enlisted nearly a dozen teams of scientists in a 21st-century hunt for the fountain of youth. And he has set a $1 million cash prize for the winners.
Joon Yun, a radiologist who heads Palo Alto Investors, has created the Palo Alto Longevity Prize as a way to urge researchers to “hack the aging code.”
“The way we are innovating in health care addresses the consequences of aging, but we’re not addressing the root cause,” Yun said in a telephone interview Monday. “So as a result of that, we ultimately can’t save people. So people ultimately age, they age out, and they die.”
Finding a solution to aging that would prolong lives and maintain their quality, he said, “remains one of the grand challenges for our society.”
Yun’s hope for unlocking the key to aging lies in finding ways to restore the body’s balance when it comes to its internal response to stress or calm — a process known as homeostatic capacity. In the daily grind of life, the nervous system’s balance tends to veer toward the stress response as people age, and its side effects — including inflammation and elevated heart rate — take a toll on the body.
“The idea here is to help restore homeostatic capacity. Part of the aging process appears to be the loss of homeostatic capacity,” Yun said.
The venture comes as the populations of the United States and other developed nations are growing older. One in five Americans will be 65 years or older by 2030, according to the Census Bureau.
Among the scientists who have accepted the challenge is David Mendelowitz, vice chairman of George Washington University’s Department of Pharmacology and Physiology. Others include a team from Charité University School of Medicine in Berlin, which will focus on gene modification; a group from Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, which will look at hypothalamic regulation; and a team from the Texas Heart Institute in Houston that will examine the role of stem cells in aging.
“We believe that aging is both a failure of stem cell number and stem cell function,” Doris Taylor, who heads the Texas Heart Institute’s group, said in an online video. “It’s really not that complicated: replace stem cell number, replace stem cell function, prolong life.”
The competition will begin Tuesday at an event at the Golden Gate Club in San Francisco. The prize will be split into two $500,000 awards. The first — to be awarded on June 15, 2016 — will go to whatever group can demonstrate the ability to restore homeopathic capacity in a test animal, as reflected in heart rate variability. That might mean showing that an aging mouse has the healthy heart rate of one much younger.
The second $500,000 prize will be given to the team that can show it has increased an animal’s longevity by at least 50 percent, also by enhancing its homeopathic capacity. Teams have until Dec. 1, 2015, to sign up.
“We think it’s a laudable goal,” Mendelowitz said. In a video and an interview, he said he welcomes the opportunity to compete because the prize’s aim is closely linked to his research. His work focuses on the autonomic nervous system, which is the part of the brain that involuntarily controls vital functions such heartbeat, breathing and digestion.
Under stress, one part of the autonomic nervous system, known as the sympathetic nervous system, reacts by increasing the heart rate, releasing adrenaline and preparing a person for “fight or flight.” The parasympathetic nervous system does the opposite — maintaining calm that protects the body, particularly the heart, Mendelowitz said.
“If we’re running away from a tiger, we obviously want to increase our heart rate and be bigger, stronger and faster. The sympathetic system is great at that,” Mendelowitz said. “The parasympathetic system is better activated when you’re reading a book in the library. You’re calm. . . . You have a really low heart rate.’’
He said that over time, the balance between sympathetic and parasympathetic “gets pushed to the sympathetic side.”
His lab is looking for ways to enhance the parasympathetic nervous system.
“That’s certainly our goal, and I think we have some results that lead us to be excited about that,” Mendelowitz said.
Yun, 46, grew up in Rockville and attended the private St. Albans School before going on to Harvard, Duke Medical School and Stanford. He has co-written two books that theorize that the food we eat contains stress that is transmitted to our bodies.
In “Low-Stress Food,” Yun argues that modern food production methods create stress hormones in plants and animals that are passed on to people. Instead of relying on factory-farmed animals, for example, he urged consumers to eat free-range animals.
“There’s no data for this,” Yun said. “But this is an intuition that this is an area we should be studying.”
Palo Alto Investors has more than $1 billion in assets, he said. Yun, who joined the hedge fund about 15 years ago, is a health-care specialist for the firm and “an early investor in companies that develop drugs and devices for unmet medical needs,” his Web site says.
“In a way, people have been interested in aging for a long time,” Yun said. “This [prize] is a very specific initiative intended to nurture specific innovations that can help us crack the aging code.”
The Palo Alto Prize: A ‘Moonshot’ at Increasing Longevity
Posted on byVICTORIA THORP
Tucked behind an unassuming door on University Avenue is the center of an effort that could significantly impact the life healthspan of human beings in the years to come. If that sounds hard to believe, then you haven’t met Dr. Joon Yun, the persuasive founder of the Palo Alto Longevity Prize, who aims to enlist the brightest scientific minds in the world to address the fundamental question of how to prevent aging.
Dr. Joon Yu, Founder of the Palo Alto Prize photo courtesy of Forbes Magazine
Joon, a board certified radiologist who served on the clinical faculty of Stanford Hospital and has an M.D. from Duke University and an B.A. Harvard University, is president of Palo Alto Investors LLC, an investment management firm with over $1 billion invested in healthcare.
But beyond his credentials, Joon is a classic visionary who believes that the inexorable march towards old age, with all of its accompanying aches, pains and fatigue, is preventable. “My father was a leader in health care research for the World Bank and taught us the importance of community,” Joon explains. “We are calling this effort the Palo Alto Prize because Palo Alto has become an epicenter of global technology revolutions.”
What does it take to help the human body regain homeostasis?
The key to longevity, he says, is for human beings to maintain the homeostatic capacity of a young adult even as they age. Homeostatic capacity is the ability to maintain homeostasis, which is defined as “the tendency of a system, especially the physiological system of higher animals, to maintain internal stability.” While homeostatic capacity is robust in our youth, we start to lose it as we get older, with particular decline in midlife. Anyone 40 or over who has tried to recover from an injury (or even a hangover) will relate to the how difficult it is to regain ‘internal stability’ in middle age compared to younger years. And the challenge of maintaining homeostasis increases as the years pile on.
To explore this idea, Joon conceived of an incentive prize like the X Prize, which would set an audacious goal and encourage the world’s smartest researchers to compete for a reward. He put up $1 million of his own money and enlisted Keith Powers, the former head of strategy for the X Prize Foundation, to help shape the incentives for drawing the teams of researchers to the Palo Alto Prize.
While $1 million might seem small in an area where start up companies are routinely valued upwards of $100 million, Powers explains in a video on the Palo Alto Prize website that the motivation of the scientific community is very different from Silicon Valley. “[Scientists] want to move discovery forward…for them, the money is not the goal but instead it provides a path to get there.”
Dr. Jin Hyun Lee, Stanford photo courtesy of Palo Alto Longevity Prize
And as evidence that the award amount is sufficient, when Joon started contacting leading scientists about the Palo Alto Prize in June of 2014, they leaped at the opportunity to get involved. There are now 14 teams from across the United States and Europe (including one led by Dr. Dr. Jin Hyung Lee at Stanford University), which are each approaching the question of how to help bodies maintain homeostasis from different disciplines, including bioengineering, genetics, neurology and more. View videos about the teams here.
Dr. David Mendelowitz, George Washington University photo courtesy of the Palo Alto Prize
Dr. David Mendelowitz, a professor of Pharmacology and Physiology who is leading a Palo Alto Prize team at George Washington University explains the appeal of the prize, saying, “As scientists, we like a challenge and the Palo Alto Prize is a catalyst for new work and new hypotheses of learning.”
In many ways, the Palo Alto Prize is in its infancy and the real news will unfold in September 2018 when the prize ends and Joon and his team of advisors, experts in medicine, biotech and venture capital evaluate the ideas that emerge. Joon has committed to provide additional prize incentives to continue the work past 2018 if there are promising avenues of research in longevity to pursue. He also lauds the efforts of Calico, the company started by Google to explore longevity, as it only helps the pursuit of knowledge to have many minds engaged.
What about the potential environmental issues on a planet where people routinely live 100 years or more? Joon is less worried. “Population studies show that when longevity goes up, so do education levels and income,” he says. “Plus if people begin living longer, they will care more about what the world will look like in the future – impact concerns will shift from being their children’s problem to being their problem.”
After the last death: Doctors, academics debate the possibility, value of a 150-year lifespan
by Joshua Alvarez / Palo Alto Weekly
Jan 9, 2015
Halloween was approaching and Dr. Joon Yun was explaining why he wanted someone to hack our bodies.
“Every day 150,000 people die worldwide and the majority of them (are) due to age-related illness,” Yun, 46, said while seated in the board room of Palo Alto Investors LLC, an investment management company of which he is president. “We’ve got the technology to hack the aging code and end aging. Question is not ‘if’ but ‘when’ we want it to happen.”
Yun, a bespectacled physician turned investor, is the benefactor of The Palo Alto Longevity Prize, a $1 million science competition aiming to end aging by restoring the body’s homeostatic capacity and promoting the extension of a sustained and healthy lifespan.
The Prize is the latest in a spate of anti-aging efforts being mounted throughout the Bay Area. Google’s Calico Project has gained the most attention because of the corporate brand and the impenetrable secrecy surrounding it. The Buck Institute in Marin County was featured in The Atlantic’s October cover story “What Happens When We All Live to 100?”
The same issue featured an essay by Ezekiel Emanuel, “Why I Hope to Die at 75.” Emanuel dismisses efforts to extend healthy longevity and equates age with decrepitude, an attitude that longevity experts including Yun consider laughably outdated.
“I’ve gotten so many emails from people linking to the story,” Yun groaned. “Somebody should start a new magazine called The Pacific. The Atlantic is an old way to think of things. Look west; look to the future.”
Six teams of scientists and medical researchers from around the country are competing for the Longevity Prize’s two $500,000 awards, the Homeostatic Capacity Prize and the Longevity Demonstration Prize. The former will go to the first team to demonstrate that it can restore homeostatic capacity of an aging mammal to that of a young adult. The latter will go to the first team that can extend the lifespan of its mammal by 50 percent of acceptable published norms using an approach that restores homeostatic capacity.
Homeostatic capacity refers to the ability of one’s physiology to self-correct and stabilize in response to stressors. Young people typically have a strong homeostatic capacity; it’s what allows their bodies to heal from injuries and recover quickly from illnesses.
Yun and the researchers leading the teams believe that homeostatic capacity erodes with age. Diabetes, hypertension and other afflictions that correlate with age may be consequences of an aging body’s inability to self-stabilize.
So what if the erosion of homeostatic capacity can be stalled or reversed? Would it end aging as we know it?
“Nobody wants to live another 40 years in bad health,” Yun said. “We want to make life longer and healthier. Imagine being 70 years old and as healthy as a horse.”
Of course, the ultimate goal is to apply any successful findings by the teams to humans. A 50 percent increase in today’s average lifespan would take today’s baby boomers to around 110 years. The oldest person in recorded history lived to 122. It’s already common to hear that today’s young people will have an average lifespan of 100 years, which would take them to 150 years if the Longevity Demonstration Prize’s results were successfully applied in time.
While Yun would welcome a healthy 150-year lifespan, even that is a baby step compared to what he thinks is, at least theoretically, possible: a healthy lifespan beyond biblical proportions. A normal 25-year-old has a one in 1,000 chance of dying from outside forces in a given year. If declining homeostatic capacity were not a factor, a 1,000-year healthy lifespan is theoretically achievable. The mortality rate of a healthy 15-year-old is 0.01 percent in a given year, which could theoretically translate to a 10,000-year lifespan.
To be sure, immortality is not the explicit goal of the Prize, but the successful abolition of aging would certainly make death the next target.
“We hope that, if we are successful … sustained homeostatic capacity will have the consequence of making death a statistic rather than an inevitability,” Yun said.
In that world, people would still die. Externalities like accidents, wars and crimes would still claim lives. But the hope is to make natural aging and death a thing of the past. In short, the fight is, ultimately, not just against disease and aging but about the very notion of longevity itself.
In fact, there already exists something that is proven to slow the erosion of homeostatic capacity and increase healthy longevity: exercise. Dr. Walter Bortz, 84, is a physician and author who teaches medicine at Stanford University. He is best known for being an advocate for a 100-year lifespan and has written dozens of articles and several books on the topic.
“Aging is not a disease!” said Bortz, as he and his wife, Ruth Anne, sipped wine and looked out over Palo Alto from the hills of Portola Valley recently.
“Neither is aging the same as frailty. Frailty and bodily decline are a result of disuse. These conditions considered to be aging-driven diseases — Alzheimer’s, diabetes, hypertension — are not related to aging at all; they are a result of lack of energy,” he said.
For evidence of the connection between exercise and healthy aging, look no further than the Bortzes: They’ve been doing marathons for decades and are regularly seen running in their neighborhood.
To be sure, they are no fans of getting older and being reminded of their age, but they are adamant that getting older is separate from being healthy.
“I just turned 84, and it was horrible,” said Ruth Anne Bortz, lamenting her accumulation of years and the approach of 100.
“Better than being dead at 84,” her husband quipped dryly.
Unlike Yun, Bortz is doubtful that an extended lifespan is possible through scientific intervention.
“There is no ‘switch’ that can be hacked and flipped to stop aging,” he said. “The decision to live a good lifestyle, to exercise, eat well, and most of all have a good mental attitude can make health persist regardless of age.”
According to Bortz, exercise initiates the expression of genes that help maintain a healthy physiology. He is not alone in connecting exercise to healthy longevity.
“The science on exercise and its effects on healthy aging are truly remarkable,” said Dr. Laura Carstensen, director of the Center on Longevity at Stanford University, a think tank focused on “redesigning long life” and building a culture that supports it.
The Center researches science and technology that can be used to solve problems facing the aged, particularly relating to mental acuity, physical mobility and financial security.
Yun does not deny that exercise and good habits contribute to maintaining health, but he believes it can’t go far enough.
“The problem is that people have been doing that for thousands of years and they are all dead,” Yun said. “The grand slam would be to maintain a young person’s capacity, and I’m not sure if we could accomplish that through only conventional behavioral methods including exercise and a balanced diet. To truly restore homeostatic capacity would require an intervention at the programmatic level.”
But Bortz is deeply skeptical of efforts to extend life beyond 120 years. The author of “The Roadmap to 100” doesn’t think a book titled “The Roadmap to 150” will ever be written.
“Not possible. We’ve been a species for eons, and the oldest person to have ever lived in recorded history is 122. There are only 120 super-centenarians (people who are 110 or older) worldwide. Why is that? Because there is a finitude due to entropy,” he said.
Still, Yun points out that science may break his way — and possibly in a way more provocative than the idea of a 1,000-year-old person.
“Our cells are programmed to deteriorate and die, a process called apoptosis. However, some of these cells that are programmed to die are mutating and programming out their apoptosis genes. Today we call that phenomenon cancer,” he said. “Cancer cells are essentially immortal. Today, cancer is considered one of the worst scourges in human history, but what if it holds the key to persistence rather than death?”
Sonia Arrison, a founder, academic adviser, and trustee at Mountain View’s Singularity University and a member of the Palo Alto Longevity Prize’s Advisory Board, has already written the book Bortz thought would never be written. “100 Plus” is about what society will be like when, not if, people live to an average of 150 years. (See sidebar.)
“I wrote the book because I want people to be aware of the technology that is making its way and not to be complacent,” said Arrison, 42, whose company’s mission is “to educate, inspire and empower leaders to apply exponential technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges.”
“All of this longevity technology will happen, but the question is ‘Will it happen to you? Do you want to be the last generation that only got to live to 80 or part of the first generation that got to live to 150?'” she said, her bright eyes as optimistic as her book.
A 150-year average lifespan would force changes in the economy and even relationships, but according to Arrison they’ll be similar to what society is already seeing, just more dramatic.
“We’ll likely have serial long-term relationships, more changes in friendships, more marriages. The nuclear family will be less common,” she said.
All the benefits she foresees are centered on choice: more choices for family structures and planning, more choices for career structure, and more economic prosperity.
Of course, a longer lifespan will force challenges on society — the biggest one, according to Arrison, being a “longevity divide.”
“We already see it today. A person in Atherton lives to their mid-80s and a person in East Palo Alto lives to only their mid-60s. It’s likely that, at least in the short term, when longevity technology hits the market that the divide will increase,” she said. “But I think, as with all other technology, it’ll become cheaper over time until just about everyone can access it if they choose. But I would take all the challenges increased longevity will pose over death and aging and disease any day.”
But such radical change in human longevity in such a short period of time could cause radical societal blowback. The last major extension of longevity occurred when average life expectancy nearly doubled from around 40 years in the beginning of the 20th century to nearly 80 by the millennium. This created generational conflicts that culminated in the 1960s and ’70s.
The teenagers and college students of 1968 were the first generation to live under an “oligarchy of the old.” The counterculture was, in many ways, the young attempting to shift the balance of power away from their parents and grandparents. In a demographic light, the young were rebelling against the consequences of extended longevity.
Carstensen, who was a teenager during that period in American history, remembers the generational animosity.
“At Woodstock we considered old people, and at that time it was 30 and up, to be oppressive. We felt we had the answers and that we would be moral and fix the problems. As boomers aged we went off and did other things and kind of lost that. It would be interesting to me if boomers came to be the change agents for longevity, which would be great and ironic,” she said.
For Carstensen, lifespan gains made in the last century are more than just a biological phenomenon.
“Longevity is one of the greatest cultural achievements in human history,” she said.
However, the achievement has outpaced institutions and cultural evolution, which, having been very slow to adapt, could lead to various crises. There’s little reason to believe society and institutions would catch up to yet another doubling of longevity in a timely manner, which would only dramatically compound today’s challenges.
“We continue to live our lives as if our life expectancy is what it was before. Our education system still ends for the majority of people before reaching age 23.
Working for 40 years, then retiring for another 30 years, is becoming economically unsustainable as well as damaging our well-being,” Carstensen said.
The health care system is what is most in need of dramatic change.
“Recent scientific advances have been largely about solving acute diseases not chronic diseases, which are the ones we are now facing,” she said. “Our system and institutions are organized to attack separate diseases rather than addressing what seems to be the underlying cause: unhealthy aging.”
Displayed on a shelf next to her desk is a board game based on Hasbro’s Game of Life but with a few alterations: Instead of life beginning in school and ending in a retirement home, it begins at birth and ends at death. It’s also structured to not be a race to the finish; in some parts it benefits players to take longer routes.
“Preparing for a long, stable, fruitful life does not begin in old age; it begins at the very earliest stages,” Carstensen said.
The point is not just rhetorical; there are more pediatricians than geriatricians associated with the Center on Longevity.
However, the Center is not interested in extending life, and Carstensen doubts the teams competing for the Palo Alto Longevity Prize will realize its ultimate goals of a radically longer health-span.
“We thought long and hard on calling ourselves the Center on Longevity rather than the Center for Longevity. I’m largely on the fence about increasing lifespan. I see a real need for improving the quality of our lives and accommodating the years we’ve been given,” she said.
Nonetheless, Carstensen said she believes the efforts of the six teams could lead to discoveries that will make healthy aging easier.
Silicon Valley technologists are neither the first nor only ones to joust at aging and death. Philosophers and writers of all times and places have deeply considered the condition and implications of decay and mortality. The great Irish poet William Butler Yeats, famous for having written his poems late in life, is often quoted as saying, “Sex and death are the only things that can interest a serious mind.”
In the present day, poet and Stanford professor Kenneth Fields has just completed a new collection of poetry that considers aging. The 75-year-old bears the physical marks of a tumultuous life lacking in both health and boredom, which brings to mind Hunter S. Thompson’s quip about how the body of someone who lived a full life should arrive, thoroughly used up, at the grave.
“Aging is the diminishing window of time between when you feel like urinating and when you actually are urinating,” Fields wryly remarked during a poetry reading on campus. However, while he would welcome restored physical health, he is not sure he would want an extended life, much less the abolishment of natural death.
“Things are beautiful because they are transient and don’t last forever,” he said. “I’m reminded of Sappho’s Hymn to Aphrodite. Sappho has had her heart broken and asks the immortal goddess Aphrodite for help. And Aphrodite is amused by her. ‘Who is it this time that’s broken your heart?’ she disinterestedly asks Sappho. It makes the point that Aphrodite can’t take these powerful, human emotions personally or seriously because she is immortal.”
“It’s questionable whether death is ‘evil’,” said Huw Duffy, a second-year doctoral philosophy student at Stanford. “You could say that death is bad for many or most people without concluding it would be good if we did not die after a couple hundred or thousand years or ever.”
Duffy turns to “The Makropulos Case,” in which Bernard Williams wrote about why immortality would be unappealing.
“There are two alternative outcomes of immortality or a radically long lifespan: extreme boredom to the point of not wanting to live or loss of identity or psychic connection with your earlier self,” Duffy explained. “It’s not at all clear that we would still want to go on being the same person for much more than 100 years.”
According to Williams, in order to have the desire to live for another lifetime, one would have to radically change one’s identity at the most fundamental level. That may sustain a meaningful life, but the idea of how different a person could be from who he or she is now should lead to questions of why a person should care about a future self staying alive in the first place.
Carstensen and Bortz share in the skepticism.
“You are going to die; get used to it,” Bortz said. “All of us hate the idea of oblivion. It’s antithetical to our sense of self. But I take solace in the fact that when you die, you leave behind ripples as the atoms in your molecules are transferred back to the world. All of life is energy transfer, from the sun to everything else. I think 100 years is plenty of time.”
Said Carstensen: “We humans have been searching for the Fountain of Youth since we realized we are mortal. We’ve gone from going on sailing expeditions to the laboratory, but the aim remains the same. To be honest, I don’t find such efforts even interesting.
“I study motivation, and I think a lot of human motivation comes from the idea of a bounded life. If we were limitless there wouldn’t be any urgency. I think death is what makes life precious. We have to do what we can because we don’t have all the time in the world,” she said.
These qualms are fine and good to Yun and Arrison. For them it’s about choice.
“We are not proscribing this for anybody; all we are doing is providing the option,” said Yun.
Arrison writes as much in her book while being decidedly opposed to any government involvement (outside of urging the FDA to ease its approval processes) in funding and developing anti-aging technology, fearing that it could ultimately lead to government-mandated eugenics. She believes the free market will do a good enough job distributing any longevity-increasing technology.
For his part, Yun finds moral support for having a choice in poetry, particularly Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night.”
“Thomas, pained from the death of his father, rages against death. It is a call to action. I think when people take death to be inevitable they create stories for themselves that console them and make it seem acceptable,” Yun said.
But for all Yun’s and Arrison’s moral fervor, the notion of choice without guarantee of equal access is unsatisfying to Stanford University Assistant Professor of Philosophy Jorah Dannenberg.
“This may start out as the sort of thing anyone will be able to decide to opt-out of if he or she doesn’t want to do it. But when enough people decide to do something like this, it will result in all sorts of social and economic pressure on anyone who may have reservations.
“Look at smartphones,” he said. “They certainly have an upside, but the fact that they’re nearly ubiquitous in certain circles generates certain powerful expectations that are difficult or impossible for any one person to cancel. The choice to significantly extend one’s life strikes me as that kind of choice, except the stakes are so much higher. The social and economic effects of others’ choices will make it hard or even impossible for those who might really prefer not to do it.”
Miljonjakten som ska stoppa åldrandet
17 december 2014 kl 08:58, uppdaterad: 18 december 2014 kl 14:24
En miljon dollar för att knäcka åldrandet. Det – och förhoppningsvis ett längre liv – är vad som står på spel när forskarlag världen över tävlar om Palo Alto Longevity Prize. SvD träffade människorna som söker efter ungdomens källa.
Joon Yun, ordförande för Palo Alto investors.
För Jin Hyung Lee och hennes team är tävlingen framförallt en chans att testa hypoteser och utbyta kunskap med forskare från andra expertområden. Här i hennes labb vid Stanford university i Kalifornien. FOTO: PAUL SAKUMA
Doktor Joon Yuns svärfar blev bara 68 år gammal. Det var ett av skälen till att den före detta Standfordläkaren, nu investerare, bestämde sig för att ta upp kampen mot döden. I början var han skeptisk till att det kunde göras, men efter att ha pratat med vänner och experter började han bli alltmer övertygad om att åldrandet faktiskt kan stoppas.
– Det är inte så långt bort som folk tror. Vad folk vet om dagens forskning är bara toppen på isberget, säger Yun, vars pappa arbetat med hälsofrågor vid Världsbanken.
“Vem vill inte leva längre?”
Jin Hyung Lee
Vi befinner oss på Palo Alto Investors kontor, söder om San Francisco. Ordförande Joon Yun konstaterar att hälsovården är fantastisk, men att den har två allvarliga problem; genom att bota symptom av åldrande, men inte åldrandet i sig, bildas en ond spiral – med en åldrande befolkning som behöver alltmer sjukvård ju äldre den blir. Det andra fatala felet är att alla till slut åldras och dör.
– Vad skulle hända om vi i stället återställde kroppen till var den en gång var i ungdomen?
Idén om ett pris för att motivera forskare att ”hacka åldrandets kod och bota åldrande” kom från familjens Yuns barnflicka, en bekant till Googles styrelseordförande Eric Schmidt. I september presenterades Palo Alto Longevity Prize. Tävlingen består av två deltävlingar med en halv miljon dollar i prispotten vardera. I den ena – med deadline juni 2016 – gäller det att återskapa en ungdomlig rytm hos ett åldrande däggdjurshjärta. Det andra går ut på att med bibehållen biologiskt jämvikt (homeostas) förlänga livslängden hos ett däggdjur med 50 procent före september 2018.
Hittills har ett tiotal forskarlag anmält sig. Först att anta utmaningen var ett team från Stanford, lett av forskaren Jin Hyung Lee. Grupperna arbetar med olika tekniker som stamceller, gener, hormoner och elektriska impulser. Lees labb forskar på nervbanor i hjärnan och hur de kontrollerar olika system i kroppen.
– Vi hade egentligen inte funderat på kopplingarna till livslängd, men kände att vi hade verktygen och att vi kanske skulle kunna bidra, säger hon.
Den största utmaningen är att bedriva forskningen utan bidrag, vid sidan av det vanliga arbetet.
– Främst gör vi det här för att vi är intresserade av ämnet. Vem vill inte leva längre?
Gerontologen Aubrey de Grey har skrivit boken ”Ending Aging” och är en av priskommitténs rådgivare. Positivt med priset menar han är att det syftar till att reversera åldrande, snarare än bara bromsa det.
”Alldeles för lite forskning görs på föryngring, så det här kommer göra väldigt stor skillnad”, skriver han i ett mejl till SvD.
Aubrey de Grey hör till dem som tror att det är möjligt för människor att leva i tusen år eller mer. För honom och andra är det inte en fråga om ”om”, utan ”när” vår livslängd kommer öka dramatiskt.
– Människor kommer aldrig bli odödliga. Däremot är det sannolikt att vi kommer leva mycket, mycket längre och friskare liv i framtiden, säger ytterligare en av rådgivarna, Sonia Arrison.
Hon är författare till boken ”100+”, om vilka effekter en ökad mänsklig livslängd skulle få. Oavsett problemen som kan uppstå (befolkningsökning som ett givet exempel) anser hon att fördelarna överväger – ”om det står mellan döden eller några problem på vägen tar jag hellre problemen.”
Enligt Arrison befinner vi oss vid en väldigt speciell tidpunkt i historien. För första gången har vi verktygen att reparera oss själva, nu måste vi bara lära oss att använda dem.
– Folk inser inte att det är en revolution på gång och att det kan gå snabbare om alla ligger på. Jag är inte orolig över att tekniken inte kommer finnas tillgänglig för mina barn, men jag skulle gärna vilja finnas kvar för att umgås med dem.
Även om priset siktar högt är Yun medveten om att han kanske kommer att behöva skriva fler checkar för att nå sitt mål. Matematikern och ekonomen Eric Weinstein, vd för Facebook-miljardären Peter Theils investmentbolag Thiel Capital, var en av talarna när priset presenterades. Han hoppas att tävlingen inte minst kan bli ett viktigt steg på vägen.
– Kanske kan den första omgången ge oss en tydligare bild av hur vår motståndare ser ut.
Dr Yun nickar instämmande. Chanserna för en ”grand slam” på första försöket är små. Han tror ändå att vi befinner oss vid starten på något stort.
– Kanske kommer framtida generationer se tillbaka på oss som de sista människorna som var fast i en åldrande kropp.
SMHS Professor Seeks to ‘Cure Aging’
David Mendelowitz is competing for the $1 million Palo Alto Longevity Prize.
George Washington University Professor David Mendelowitz is competing against scientists from around the world in a race against time. He and his team of researchers would receive up to $1 million from a group of Silicon Valley-based investors if they “crack the aging code.”
The Palo Alto Longevity Prize is a life science competition created by former Washingtonian Joon Yun, a radiologist and president of Palo Alto Investors. Dr. Yun is hoping the contest, which launched Sept. 9, will lead to scientific innovations that reduce diseases associated with aging and increase human life expectancy.
“I feel like it is inevitable that we’re going to solve aging. All we’re really doing is pulling up the timeline,” Dr. Yun says in a video on the Longevity Prize website.
The prize is privately sponsored by the Palo Alto Institute and split into two $500,000 awards. The first will go to the team that can successfully “restore homeostatic capacity” in an animal (using heart rate variability as a biomarker).
Homeostatic capacity, according to Dr. Yun, is the capability of systems in the body to self-stabilize in response to stressors. When we are young, homeostatic capacity maintains elevated blood glucose and blood pressure at healthy levels. As people age, stress levels in the nervous system increase, and it becomes more difficult for the body to recover from an injury or an illness.
The second $500,000 prize will be awarded to the scientists who can extend an animal’s lifespan by 50 percent of acceptable published norms. Teams may compete for one or both prizes.
Dr. Mendelowitz, a professor of pharmacology and physiology in the School of Medicine and Health Sciences, believes that a key to slowing the aging process is to reduce the body’s response to daily stress.
He studies the autonomic nervous system, a primitive part of the brain that regulates functions of internal organs, such as the heart, stomach and intestines. The system is divided into two components: parasympathetic and sympathetic activity.
“The sympathetic system is activated when you’re in fight or flight mode—when you think you ran over your neighbor’s cat or you realize you have an exam in two hours, and you haven’t studied. It increases your heart rate,” Dr. Mendelowitz said. “The parasympathetic system is activated when you’re reading a book in the library, and you’re relaxed.”
Humans are likely born with a good balance of parasympathetic and sympathetic activity, Dr. Mendelowitz said. But as we get older and face more stress, sympathetic activity increases, putting people at high risk for sudden cardiac death, arrhythmias, high blood pressure or other cardiovascular diseases. Dr. Mendelowitz’s lab is primarily interested in finding ways to preserve parasympathetic activity, particularly to the heart.
“If you can retain that healthy, subdued heart rate as you get older, that can have many profound health benefits,” he said.
Dr. Mendelowitz and his team of researchers are one of 11 groups who have signed up in the Longevity Prize competition. Teams have until June 15, 2015, to apply to the contest. The deadline for the homeostatic capacity prize, which Dr. Mendelowitz’s lab is competing for, is June 15, 2016.
Dr. Mendelowitz’s team is studying the neurons in the brain that generate parasympathetic activity in the heart. By understanding which receptors or transmitters depress the parasympathetic system as we age, they hope to identify approaches to reverse this process.
“We are trying to understand if there are ways to restore the balance of parasympathetic and sympathetic activity, and to re-excite these neurons that are firing less often with cardiovascular diseases or as we age,” Dr. Mendelowitz said.
To win the Longevity Prize, Dr. Mendelowitz’s team will need to prove that it has improved heart rate variability (HRV) in a test animal—for instance, showing that an older mouse has a heart rate similar to that of a younger one. HRV, which is regulated by the autonomic nervous system, indicates the moment-to-moment changes in heart rate. Research has linked high HRV to good health and low HRV to stress, fatigue and many cardiovascular diseases.
Dr. Mendelowitz said he already has promising preliminary data on parasympathetic activity that his team is excited to pursue. If he does win the Longevity Prize, the money will go toward further research and will give his lab more flexibility in long-term projects.
“NIH funding is extremely competitive now, so people feel like they need to produce results immediately. This prize has allowed some people, myself included, to take a look at the bigger picture and to ask what could be important six years down the line rather than six months,” Dr. Mendelowitz said. “And every scientist loves a challenge.”
The Scientific Quest to Cure Aging
CBS NEWS | January 27, 2016, 6:00 AM|
It’s a pursuit that seems more like the plot of a science fiction movie than an actual goal of serious researchers around the world. But a number of scientists are fiercely working toward what was once only attainable in fables and fairy tales: they want to end aging.
The quest has even inspired a competition with a monetary prize from that hub of innovation, Silicon Valley. The Palo Alto Longevity Prize, founded by Dr. Joon Yun, a radiologist who heads Palo Alto Investors, is offering $1 million in prize money as a way to urge researchers figure out how to “hack the code” of aging.
While those in the growing field of longevity research admit the task at hand is expansive and complex, they say big advancements have already been made and expect to see more in the near future.
“The goal is similar to all medical research which is to make people healthier and keep people alive longer so we can have more productive lives and not be such a burden to society,” David Sinclair, Ph.D., a professor of genetics and co-director of the Paul F. Glenn Center for the Biology of Aging at the Harvard Medical School, told CBS News.
The Australian-born biologist, who sits on the board of the Palo Alto Longevity Prize, discovered in 2013 that Nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD), a chemical found in every living organism, can turn on defenses against aging, though its levels decrease the older we grow.
Sinclair envisions a time — maybe not too far away — when doctors will prescribe medicine utilizing these findings to curb aging.
“We are finding genes and molecules that we can take as a pill that would slow down every disease from Alzheimer’s to diabetes to cancer plus give us more energy during our whole lives,” he said. “Side effects would be living longer, but the ultimate goal is there will be a future — maybe it’s only a decade or two away — where people won’t have to worry about getting these diseases in their 60s or 70s but can put that off to 100 or 110.”
The Palo Alto Prize is meant to inspire and reward such innovations. The competition was announced in 2014 and final registration closed this past December. Winning research teams in two different categories — who will be awarded $500,000 each — are expected to be announced by the end of 2019.
The roughly 30 teams that are participating in the competition are taking a broad range of approaches, from stem cell therapies to gene modification to hormonal treatments to behavioral and nutritional interventions. Because of the nature of the competition, specifics about each project have not been disclosed to the public, but videos are available on the contest’s website with teams introducing their research.
Who Will be First to “Hack the Code” of Aging?
A RACE TO THE FINISH
$1,000,000 LONGEVITY PRIZE + 10 TEAMS = LET’S GO!
On September 9, 2014 we announced the Palo Alto Prize, a $1M initiative to foster innovations that will ultimately help people live significantly healthier and longer lives as a result of better health. The initiative was designed to have two parts, a $500,000 Longevity Demonstration Prize and a $500,000 Homeostatic Capacity Prize.
Historically, incentive prizes have proven to be a very effective tool to foster innovation in specific areas of science and discovery. They create problem-solving ecosystems. The ecosystem works because the prize purse and target pull innovation towards a specific goal while also attracting minds, media and money to help push from all sides. When all cylinders are firing amazing things can happen, entire industries can be created, we discover new heroes, and public opinion changes forever.
Today, we are excited to announce the names of the ten teams that have officially registered for the $500,000 Palo Alto Longevity Demonstration Prize, a three year global competition co-created and sponsored by Dr. Joon Yun that challenges teams from all over the world to “hack the aging code” to improve our health and extend lifespan.
Here is a quick intro video about the prize:
Each of the 10 teams (listed below with videos of their approaches) are from top universities and private labs from North America and all over the world. They have a wide range of proposed approaches to win the prize including (but not limited to) stem cells, genetic modification, modified messenger RNA encoding telomerase, modulation of peripheral metabolism, PAI-1 signaling, antioxidants/free radicals, and manipulation of nested biorhythms. The first of the following ten teams to demonstrate a method of extending the lifespan of an animal by 50% will win the prize.
We would like to thank Dr. Joon Yun for his support and leadership in launching this effort. Without visionary philanthropists like Dr. Yun prizes like the Palo Alto Prize would not be possible. Dr. Yun is the President of Palo Alto Investors, LLC and the founder of the Palo Alto Institute, a nonprofit think-tank that has been providing operational support for the Palo Alto Prize. As a medical doctor and healthcare investor, Dr. Yun has a unique perspective into medicine and the state of the industry. And while he believes that the current healthcare system is doing a remarkable job of addressing the diseases of aging, he helped launch the prize because he believes that “Addressing the diseases of aging without solving the underlying process of aging produces escalating effects on health care spending.”
We created the Race Against Time Foundation in order to raise public awareness and financial support for basic biomedical research related to increasing our health span and defining the fundamental biological mechanisms that prevent age-related diseases and disabilities. Based on the exponential rate of medical breakthroughs, we believe the question is not ifwe can crack the aging code and solve all major health challenges — but whenwill it happen. We are in a race against time and it is up to us if to decided if that timeframe is 5 years, 50 years or 500 years.
What can you do to get involved?
The best way that you can get involved is to support science and support the scientists. Take a look at each of our team profiles and reach out to them directly. Every day millions of scientists work to make our lives better. They are society’s real super heroes. These heroes work tirelessly to create and design everything around us, from rocket ships, to clean water filters, to cures for disease. Many of these heroes (like our teams) are dedicating their lives to research that will lead to discoveries that will increase our health span by helping us all live healthier and longer lives. Please support a scientist today!
We are excited to see what the teams come up with, but we also know that this prize is just one shot on goal. We encourage more public and private prizes and other industry efforts to help move the industry forward.
Race Against Time & Hero Science Foundation
PS. We would also like to thank all of our amazing advisors who helped make this prize possible and who lend their time and their names to move the longevity field forward.