Dreaming of Eternal Youth
In Silicon Valley, increasing numbers of scientists, entrepreneurs and investors are trying to fix the problems of aging. In extreme cases, they want to conquer death altogether.
Here, in the heart of Silicon Valley, researchers are working to fulfill an ancient dream:
They're trying to outwit death. We're in a nondescript, gray, low-rise building in San Bruno, wedged between the eight-lane Highway 101 and a recycling facility that gives off an unpleasant odor in warm weather. At Alkahest, a start-up founded three years ago, researchers are experimenting with blood plasma from young donors, hopeful that it might offer a way to regenerate the brains of Alzheimer's patients.
Alkahest is built on the remarkable work of Tony Wyss-Coray, one of the com company's co-founders. Wyss-Coray, a Swissborn professor of neurology, chairs Alkahest's scientific advisory board while also teaching and conducting research at nearby Stanford University. He and his team made headlines most recently in April 2017, when their research showed for the first time that substances found in the blood can improve the brain function of elderly mice. Following an 18-month review, the findings were published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature.
Now Alkahest's scientists are trying to determine whether these substances might also help elderly humans. In their San Bruno laboratory, they are examining more than 10,000 proteins found in blood plasma, searching for the right combination of rejuvenating substances to treat patients with Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia. Alkahest is still years away from marketing its first product. The long-term goal is to isolate individual molecules capable of triggering a rejuvenating effect in the blood or blocking harmful effects in old plasma. This is intended to delay the onset of age-related diseases like Alzheimer's and drastically reduce the acute phase of the disease.
"We are not trying to make people live forever," says Alkahest co-founder Joe McCracken, speaking with us in his tidy office overlooking the fence of the recycling plant. McCracken, 64, spent decades working for major pharmaceutical companies like Genentech, Roche and Aventis. Now he serves as Alkahest's vice president of business development. "We would just like people to live better – either by extending the period of good health or by eliminating some of the age-related diseases that are a cause of death."
Theoretically, it's possible to stop, slow down or reverse aging. Whether it will be feasible is a different question.
While others may dismiss the idea of conquering death as a megalomaniacal, utopian fantasy, in Silicon Valley it's taken seriously. Increasing numbers of start-ups are looking for ways to control or delay the aging process. Tech billionaires are investing more and more money, and nowhere else in America are so many scientists conducting research on aging as in this hightech mecca on the West Coast.
"For most it's about personal interest and a huge financial opportunity as well as improving the world," says Robert Nelsen. Nelsen, co-founder of Arch Venture Partners, is one of the most successful venture capitalists in the biotech sector. An investor in numerous anti-aging start-ups, every day he takes a long list of drugs and dietary supplements alleged to have a rejuvenating effect. While Nelsen concedes that there is no scientific evidence of their effectiveness, he feels better all the same.
Repair Kit for the Body
Nelsen's largest investment in the rejuvenation sector to date went to Unity Biotechnology, a start-up in Brisbane, a town located south of San Francisco, and like Google's sister company Calico one of the largest anti-aging enterprises in Silicon Valley. Unity's researchers are trying to find therapeutic substances to selectively remove so-called senescent cells, in effect to create a kind of repair kit for the human body.
As we age, these cells lose their functionality. No longer removed by the immune system, they accumulate in the body and can cause inflammation. Among the consequences are typical age-related diseases such as diabetes, renal failure and cancer. Studies in mice have shown that removing these cells substantially reduces the negative effects of age-related ailments, increasing life expectancy by 25 percent.
In animal models, Unity was able to demonstrate that removing senescent cells can prevent or reverse the course of such diseases as osteoarthritis and arteriosclerosis, as well as diseases of the eyes and kidneys. The life span of the laboratory animals increased by as much as 35 percent. Clinical trials are scheduled to begin in mid-2018; a market-ready product can be expected seven years from now at the earliest.
In an interview with The New Yorker magazine, Ned David, Unity's optimistic co-founder, was quoted as saying, "We think our drugs vaporize a third of human diseases in the developed world." A biochemist, David is a so-called healthspanner – like nearly all researchers who study aging, he is seeking to extend the healthy life span.
The Unity researchers are not looking for a universal remedy for aging (yet), but rather for methods of combating age-related diseases by treating one deteriorating body part after another. So far, Unity has raised 154 million dollars from investors, including Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal and one of the first to invest in Facebook.
Thiel is among the most active of those who believe it is possible to extend the human life span. He provides financial support for scientists and start-ups, and has given millions to organizations like the Methuselah Foundation, which focuses on tissue engineering and regenerative medicine, as well as to the anti-aging SENS Research Foundation. While people like Thiel dream of a longer life span or even immortality, futurist Ray Kurzweil, Google's director of engineering, is a proponent of transhumanism – a movement to transform the human condition with the help of machines and artificial intelligence. Those at the extreme of the spectrum are known as "immortalists."
"I believe if we could enable people to live forever, we should do that," says Thiel, who takes growth hormones and follows the Paleo diet in his quest to live to age 120. Technologists view the IT industry's accomplishments – such as chips, software, algorithms and big data – as tools for understanding and optimizing the human body.
Several start-ups are taking a big data approach, combining and analyzing enormous quantities of data with the goal of developing treatments for age-related diseases. One of them, BioAge, was founded two years ago by bioinformatician Kristen Fortney. This past summer she from investors like the prominent venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz.
BioAge, headquartered in Berkeley, combines genomic and other biomedical data with machine learning to measure how people age and speed up drug development. "We take a hybrid experimental and computational approach to identifying the molecular signatures that drive aging," says Fortney. Just as fingerprints show a unique pattern for each individual, the composition of these molecules in the blood and tissue can reveal the signature of a disease. In the start-up's tiny offices in an older building not far from the University of California, Berkeley, there's not a laboratory to be found. Experiments on mice will be conducted in cooperation with partners at universities and pharmaceutical companies, whose names have not yet been revealed by BioAge CEO Fortney.
The researchers are not looking for a universal remedy for aging (yet), but rather for methods of combating age-related diseases.
Those who are impatient with the pace of progress already have the option of undergoing treatment with blood plasma. Since September 2016, a start-up called Ambrosia has offered both sick and healthy test subjects transfusions of blood plasma from donors under the age of 25. The cost of this treatment: 8,000 dollars.
Ambrosia was founded by Jesse Karmazin, who has a medical degree from Stanford University but is not licensed to practice medicine. He has been widely criticized on several counts: participants in his first study are covering their own costs, selection of those participants is based on their ability to pay, and the study does not include a control group. "It's the only way for me to finance the trial," explains Karmazin. So far roughly 90 people have participated and approval has been granted for up to 600. According to Karmazin, older subjects show fewer biomarkers for heart disease and certain cancers one month after transfusion. He cautions, however, that these results are "extremely preliminary." He hasn't yet been able to persuade investors, says the 33-year-old Karmazin, who is self-financing his startup. So he is running the business from his modest studio apartment near Washington, D.C. Transfusions are currently offered by two medical practices, one in Pacific Grove, south of Silicon Valley, the other in Tampa, Florida. "I contacted many doctors, but most of them are very skeptical of this treatment and don't want to have anything to do with the trial," says Karmazin.
"Calls From Older Guys"
Alkahest co-founder Wyss-Coray, too, expresses considerable skepticism about the anti-aging movement – despite his own discoveries. "Immortalists" and transhumanists reflect badly on serious researchers, says the neurology professor, who reports receiving regular calls "from older guys who want to live forever." He adds, "Theoretically it's possible to stop, slow down or reverse aging. Whether it will be feasible is a different question," he says, speaking to us in his cramped laboratory on Stanford's spacious campus. "Whether it should be attained, whether it's desirable, that's yet another question."