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Who wants to live forever? The rise of anti-ageing technology

10 May 2022

Millions are being invested in anti-ageing start-ups. Could it really be possible to live to 200 or even 1,000? By Rob Waugh.

Birthday cake celebrating 200th birthday
Image by Peter Crowther

What if there was a simple way to live longer – a treatment to make your body’s cells young again, a modern, better researched version of the mythical elixir of life?

It sounds like science fiction but, after recent breakthroughs in which the bodies of mice have been ‘rejuvenated’ without any apparent ill-effects, the world’s richest people are throwing millions, even billions, at start-ups aiming to reverse the process of ageing.

The latest laboratory devoted to defying (or least delaying) death is due to open in Cambridge soon. It’s the UK arm of Altos Labs in California, now the biggest biotech company launch of all time backed by $3 billion in investment, including from Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. It recently poached Hal Barron, chief scientific officer of British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, to be CEO.

Bezos is not the only tech entrepreneur with an eye on immortality: PayPal founder Peter Thiel has put money into the Methuselah Foundation, which has the goal of making ‘90 the new 50’. And Google’s founders have been at it for years with their Calico start-up.

It’s tempting to dismiss this as the ultimate billionaire’s vanity exercise – and it’s telling that despite being in operation since 2013, Calico has yet to come up with anything approaching the elixir of life.

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But experts are genuinely excited by the potential this time. The current ‘gold rush’ is driven by a new understanding of the biology of ageing, according to Dr Andrew Steele, author of Ageless: The New Science of Getting Older Without Getting Old: ‘Suddenly there is this consensus about what it is that causes the underlying ageing process, and we’re at a point where we understand enough about the process that we can start to try to intervene.’ He believes longevity drugs may even be available within a decade. Among the most promising leads so far are drugs called senolytics that kill ‘senescent’ cells. These are damaged ‘zombie cells’ that stop dividing and don’t die off as they should, and a build-up of these cells is thought to make us increasingly frail as we age.

‘These drugs show huge, huge promise in mouse experiments: we can basically make mice biologically younger by many, many measures,’ explains Dr Steele. ‘Some are already in human trials.’ He says there are currently more than two dozen companies trying to turn these from an idea in the lab into something that you and I may one day take with our morning cup of tea.

Whether we actually want to live an extra 50 years – as one of the scientists at Altos Labs has claimed is eminently possible – is quite another matter. Some proponents have even claimed that the first person to live to 1,000 may already have been born. However, more realistic voices suggest that the real benefit of this push for longer life lies in increasing our ‘healthspan’ – the number of years we are healthy – by preventing diseases associated with ageing, such as dementia and Type 2 diabetes.

'It would almost be immoral to let somebody suffer from age-related ailments'  

But how? The science is fiendishly complicated, and there are several strands of promising research. One is rejuvenating the immune system. Several start-ups are investigating drugs targeting the thymus gland, a key part of the immune system that shrinks with age.

Another potentially exciting treatment is based on a chemical discovered 50 years ago on Easter Island. Rapamycin, which is produced by soil bacteria, has already been shown to inhibit the aged ‘zombie’ cells in small animals and is currently being tested in dogs. Scientists hope that it could extend the dogs’ lifespan by up to a third and if the experiment succeeds, they hope to test it in humans.

Back at Altos Labs, they’re focusing on reprogramming older cells back to their embryonic stem cell state. To use an analogy readily understood by the tech billionaires funding the research, it’s a bit like restoring factory settings on your computer.

Among the scientists working there is Juan Carlos Izpisúa Belmonte, a Spanish biochemist who managed to extend the lifespan of mice by an astonishing 30% in a recent experiment. He did it by adding gene-regulating proteins called ‘Yamanaka factors’ to cells in order to turn them back to stem cells, the body’s raw material from which all our specialist cells – from skin to liver to brain – are developed. The process is named after Altos board member Shinya Yamanaka, who won a Nobel prize in 2012 for his discovery.

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Belmonte believes human lifespans could be increased by half a century this way, and has even claimed the Yamanaka process amounts to the real deal – a genuine ‘elixir of life’.

The path to immortality seems far from smooth, however. There have been some big failures from longevity companies – such as an anti-arthritis treatment from Unity Biotechnology, which aimed to destroy the ‘senescent’ cells found in older tissues and which failed in a human trial. Other start-ups have published little in the way of concrete results, despite vast budgets – such as Google’s Calico, for example.

‘In biotechnology, in general, we’re talking about 60% or 80% failure rates, depending on the therapeutic area,’ says Alex Zhavoronkov, PhD, the chief science officer of the UK-based Biogerontology Research Foundation and founder of biotechnology company Insilico Medicine. ‘Ageing is the most complex therapeutic area – we should expect failures, and we should expect major advances, but we shouldn’t expect miracles.’

He believes that drugs already approved for treating chronic diseases could have a dual use in extending lifespan. For example, Metformin, an inexpensive, widely used diabetes drug has been tested in America for anti-ageing qualities.

British anti-ageing pioneer Dr Nichola Conlon, a molecular biologist, says she does not believe that there will be one magic bullet to combat ageing, but rather incremental breakthroughs over time. She believes the world will gradually shift towards thinking that ageing is a treatable disease.

‘The ageing field at the moment is like where we were with cancer 50 years ago when it was, “Oh, well, you know, bad luck, it’s a natural thing. There’s nothing you can do.” Now it’s an absolute given that there are ways you can treat it. I think in the future, this is what ageing is going to be like.

‘As we develop the science it would almost be immoral to let somebody suffer from age-related ailments.’

Many worry about the ethics of living longer on a planet that’s already crowded, and with limited resources.

Dr Steele, for one, doesn’t buy into this argument. ‘This is going to be a revolution on a par with the discovery of antibiotics, but it’s going to be a revolution that is very slow motion.

‘Say you’re worried about the economic consequences of 200-year-olds – we’re not going to have any of those for at least 100 years, even if I snapped my fingers and cured ageing today. So this is something that we’re going to have plenty of time to get used to and adapt to. Ageing is probably the world’s biggest cause of suffering. Anything we can do to ameliorate that is a huge humanitarian benefit.’

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