Sep 25, 2021 - Health

Silicon Valley is chasing the fountain of youth

Illustration of a pattern of hourglasses

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Human aging is the latest and greatest field being disrupted by technology.

The big picture: Work on therapeutics that could slow or even prevent the aging process is moving out of the fringes and into the mainstream, fueled by funding from tech billionaires who have one thing left to conquer: death.

  • Just don't start planning for immortality quite yet.

What's happening: Earlier this month, MIT Technology Review broke the story of the formation of Alto Labs, a new startup that hired some of the best scientists in anti-aging research with million-dollar salaries funded by tech luminaries like Yuri Milner and reportedly Jeff Bezos.

  • Alto Labs joins the increasingly crowded space of well-funded startups — including Calico Labs, which spun off in 2013 from Google with support from founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin — that want to directly attack the biological process of aging.
  • "The entire field of longevity is coming to the forefront because we're actually developing strategies that feel investible from a venture capitalist perspective and from a pharma perspective," says James Peyer, the CEO of the anti-aging startup Cambrian Biopharma.

By the numbers: According to a recent survey, the global value of drugs that claim to address aging was nearly $8 billion in 2020, and is projected to double by 2027.

The catch: There are plenty of nonprescription treatments that purport to extend longevity, but there hasn't been a single new drug approved to specifically treat the process of aging.

  • There have been promising results in some animal experiments, but even beginning human clinical trials on new treatments has proven elusive.
  • There's one obvious reason for that: as New Yorker writer Tad Friend wrote in a piece on anti-aging companies in 2017, "it’s hard to run a clinical trial on subjects who take eighty years to die."
  • "If you get an experimental drug and I get a placebo, how long do we have to wait to see aging being slowed?" says Peyer. Nor does it help that the FDA "doesn't recognize aging as a disease," he adds.

Between the lines: In part to get around that obstacle, companies like Cambrian are focusing on better understanding biological hallmarks of aging, like cellular wear and tear or mutations in mitochondrial DNA, that can be measured without waiting around for a patient in a clinical trial to die — or not.

  • What scientists are trying to identify is the biological clock of an individual — how young a body really is — rather than the chronological age, and then discover treatments that slow that clock or even wind it backward.
  • Cambrian, for instance, is working on treatments for a rare form of childhood muscular dystrophy under the hypothesis that putting healthy young muscle stem cells into key muscles "could help prevent frailty in old age," says Peyer.

Another startup called Loyal is trying to short-circuit the clinical trial problem by studying anti-aging treatments in dogs, who, as 27-year-old founder and CEO Celine Halioua notes, "have a super-short lifespan compared to humans."

  • That's unfortunate for dogs and their owners, but it means "you can actually see if an intervention extends lifespan and delays onset of disease relatively early in their life, and develop a drug explicitly for that," she says.

Be smart: Companies like Cambrian and Loyal are more interested in extending "healthspan" — the number of years an individual can enjoy a healthy, active life — rather than sheer lifespan.

  • Such drugs wouldn't allow us to live forever or anything close to it, but they would have tremendous social and financial benefits.
  • Of the $3.65 trillion that Americans spent on health care in 2018, 10% went to end-of-life care, and with the country on track to grow ever older, those numbers are only likely to grow without dramatic intervention.

What to watch: Some researchers and companies are even more ambitious, however.

  • Alto and Calico are both reportedly focusing on biological reprogramming, a way of rejuvenating cells and revitalizing the entire body — an approach that really could represent a fountain of youth if it worked, though the process has thus far only been tried in animals with mixed success.
  • At the furthest sci-fi end, some in the field believe the ultimate solution to mortality could lay in upgrading the human body with machine parts, and eventually even uploading the brain into the cloud — a kind of Dropbox of the soul.
  • "We have LASIK surgery," says Tyler Hayes, the CEO of Atom Limbs, which makes AI-controlled prosthetic arms. "Why not continue it all the way to replacing body parts?"

The bottom line: Father Time is undefeated, and likely to remain so. But the billions flowing into anti-aging research could one day at least extend the fight.

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