The Lamen

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Jan 16, 2024 | Biotechnology

The science of living longer is getting serious

Tech royalty is heartily pumping millions into the science of living longer while others hope to coax regulators.

Image: Unsplash

Growing older is inevitable, and only a select few get to spend their late life free of deteriorated bodies and minds. Pop a handful of pills every day and eat Paleo, yet you will still grow weaker and die. Over the last couple of decades, however, a growing community of scientists have challenged this perception: proposing that aging isn’t an inevitability, but a series of complex molecular processes that turn the “biological clock” forward.

The average lifespan is going up, and treatments that can almost certainly extend your “healthspan” are getting more accessible. Human ambitions of living longer have grown out of the infancy stage, as tech royal becomes increasingly proactive in backing researchers working out ways to stall aging or reverse it altogether.

Longevity-related companies worldwide have reportedly received over $5 billion in investments. Altos Labs, backed by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and billionaire investor Yuri Milner, launched with a whopping $3 billion investment last year. OpenAI CEO Sam Altman invested $180 million in Retro Biosciences, and Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page have poured billions into Calico. This contest among the ultra-rich gives the hope that the technology follows historic trends where things cheapen to a point where they appeal to the masses.

For a field that has notoriously been littered with charlatans, mainstream science and the general “health nut” has been understandably suspicious. An essay published in Scientific American in 2002 — titled “No Truth to the Fountain of Youth” — pointed out the ineffectiveness of anti-aging remedies proposed at the time, and how the industry was taking advantage of hasty customers.

The hawking of anti-aging “therapies” has taken a particularly troubling turn of late. Disturbingly large numbers of entrepreneurs are luring gullible and frequently desperate customers of all ages to “longevity” clinics, claiming a scientific basis for the anti-aging products they recommend and, often, sell. At the same time, the Internet has enabled those who seek lucre from supposed anti-aging products to reach new consumers with ease.

As Vox’s Emily Steward notes, much of the anti-aging industry sings the same reminder: our acceptance of aging hasn’t changed, and we’re expected to be a customer of the industry for life. Anti-aging remains a trendy keyword to add to cosmetics and supplements, a market expected to reach $106.32 billion by 2030.

The field of longevity has since attempted to set itself apart from the subculture of “life extensionism,” the tenets of which supposedly add a few healthy years to your lifespan at the cost of a routine that is, ironically, not worth living. Experts have talked about processes like mitochondrial dysfunction, cell senescence, and chronic inflammation as the primary drivers of aging. As a result, they propose the idea of taking certain drugs prophylactically or following specific procedures that prevent the biomarkers of aging from accumulating.

American tech entrepreneur Bryan Johnson has gone viral on multiple occasions for his longevity program dubbed “Project Blueprint.” The 45-year-old supposedly spends $2 million a year on a team of doctors and experts that track everything from the age of his skin to the hardness of his erections — which Johnson explains as “turning his body over to an anti-aging algorithm” that takes better care of him than he could himself.

Photograph of tech millionaire Bryan Johnson.

Tech millionaire Bryan Johnson, who has amassed a following for his extensive “anti-aging” protocol. Image: Damien Maloney for Bloomberg Businessweek / Flickr

The bid to extend the human lifespan may not require such bleeding-edge science or blood transfusions from the young, most experts suggest. The idea is to get rid of “senescent” cells or trigger “epigenetic” rejuvenation — telling cells and tissues inside a 60-year-old’s body to function with a youthful vigor. This could mean a well-devised combination of drugs like rapamycin and metformin, or reversing aging through “cellular reprogramming.”

Even if scientists have succeeded in rejuvenating cells in a petri dish and aging mice, replicating the findings in humans is an obvious hurdle. The other is getting regulatory approval. As it stands, aging isn’t officially defined as a disease, making it very difficult to get a drug approved that “treats aging.” Most drugs currently being investigated for their anti-aging properties are repurposed, and already approved by the FDA. The current understanding is to have aging benefits as an add-on to a drug that treats some age-related diseases.

The hope is for drugs like metformin to be approved, serving as a stepping-stone where pharmaceutical companies jump in with better drugs — ones that work fundamentally different from the “one drug, one disease” approach.