Defying death in today’s AI-driven scientific world, has emerged as a multi-billion-dollar business. Silicon Valley nerds no longer treat death as inevitable. It is merely a problem to be solved
By Shailendra Kumar
- Many billionaires, tech tsars, Saudi royals and even Crypto millionaires, have poured in billions of dollars in longevity startups
- The global anti-ageing market is projected to be close to USD 270 billion by next year and USD 420 billion by 2030
- Scientists believe that immunological ageing can be reversed by treating the thymus – a tiny gland in the chest that triggers growth of disease-combating T cells
- Dozens of startups have joined the bandwagon to come up with new tools and it has indeed become a lollipop-grab for health-fashionistas in rich countries
IN 1789, Benjamin Franklin had said, “Nothing is certain in this world except for death and taxes”. None at that time would have imagined that the wheel of time, at some stage in future, can also be rotated anti-clock-wise. But only for death; Certainly not for taxes.
Defying death in today’s AI-driven scientific world, has emerged as a multi-billion-dollar business. Silicon Valley nerds no longer treat death as inevitable. It is merely a problem to be solved. The challenge is to find sure-shot bio-tools to stave off mortality by delaying ageing.
What is ageing?
It is a degenerative process that results in tissue dysfunction and eventually death. This definition of ageing has carved out the turfs for tech companies – neurodegeneration and tissue dysfunction. If tissues are regrown or rejuvenated and neurodegeneration is stymied by a few years, partial triumph over death can be said to have been scored.
You may swoon but the tech-driven scientific world is indeed tantalisingly very close to grabbing the “elixir of life”. The AI-driven horse is out of the barn and would not get back without the baggage of success riding its back. Are you digesting it with a grain of salt? Are you thinking that overstaying your welcome on the earth is morally or perhaps religiously not right? This calls for a separate round of ado.
Meanwhile, let me facilitate you a roving glimpse through the belly of scientific research done thus far on the issue of delaying death or even bids to attain eternal life.
Fired by ‘mankind’ craving for a fountain of youth, dozens of billionaires – tech tsars, Saudi royals and even crypto millionaires, have poured in billions of dollars in anti-ageing startups.
Flush with cash to burn, investors had pumped in close to USD 850 mn into longevity startups in 2018. One Startup Altos Labs sprang out of its embryo with USD 3 billion seed-fund.
A good number of startups are focussed on regenerative medicines and organ replacement. Pittsburgh-based Startup LyGenesis uses lymph nodes to regrow organs inside bodies. It has got FDA nod for its first human trial. Its focus is on the last stage of liver disease
In 2013, Google had set up a new outfit called Calico Life Sciences with USD 2.5 billion in funding. Biosplice Therapeutics Inc, a company that works on stem cells to regenerate hair, skin, and bones, has mopped up USD 650 million and is now valued at USD 12 billion. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has also pumped in millions into Altos Labs.
Unity Biotechnology is researching a drug that targets senescent cells. It went public last year and is now valued at USD 350 million.
Life Biosciences is an age-reversal startup and has mopped up more than USD 74 million. A major player in the pharma sector, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), had acquired anti-ageing startup Sirtris in a deal in 2008 and bankrolled its projects but USD 720 million went down the drain as GSK paused the research two years later, citing poor results.
Anyway, the global anti-ageing market is projected to be close to USD 270 bn by next year and USD 420 billion by 2030.
LONGEVITY SCIENTIST VERSUS IMMORTALIST
For the netizens’ convenience, the startups can be split into two groups – longevity scientists (also called health spanners) and immortalists.
Scientists describe it as that part of a person’s life during which one is generally in good health. Ergo, health spanners simply laser-focus on delaying the ageing process – allowing for much longer quality existence. They are striving to barricade the causes of terminal diseases and ensure a painless death when the fait accompli arrives.
Billionaires like Bezos are convinced that if not immortality, extended youth would someday be a reality. One discovery that spawns hope is the discovery of calorie-restricted diets which can extend healthy life in a range of animals. Such a finding was made long back in 1993. It was discovered that altering a single gene, DAF-2, can double the lifespan of roundworms, slow their ageing and allow them to live longer lives.
In 2013, Google had set up a new outfit called Calico Life Sciences with USD 2.5 billion in funding. Biosplice Therapeutics Inc, a company that works on stem cells to regenerate hair, skin, and bones, has mopped up USD 650 million and is now valued at USD 12 billion
Immortalists, on the other hand, strongly believe that they can use technology to prevent death. Like Artificial Intelligence (AI), they think that they can programme the human body. They are eyeing to control the evolution of mankind, not leaving anything to be regulated by nature.
From a biological perspective, the only technical job a man or a woman has to do on this planet is to pass on one’s genes. After that, we are simply cramming the space. Though there is abundance of research on understanding the ageing process, scientists are also not sure whether longevity is an outcome of our genes or our lifestyles or even environment.
However, we all know that senescence, the process of deterioration with age, takes us closer to the Grim Reaper! Scientists believe that the body’s failure to heal triggers inflammation which results in serious issues like Alzheimer’s, Arthritis, Cancer and Cardiac diseases. Though each of these chronic diseases is isolated and needs to be treated separately, but, a good swathe of scientists believe that ageing is the evil and if senescent cells are switched off, ageing can be ‘cured’.
DRUG OF HOPE
Ageing is construed as malleable – controlled by genes, biological signals and cellular pathways. Scientists believe that immunological ageing can be reversed by treating the thymus – a tiny gland in the chest that triggers growth of disease-combating T cells.
Anyway, what nourishes the latest crop of hope among the investors is the presence of some drugs in the market like Metformin, a diabetes drug, but it has proven its efficacy in helping people live longer. It is consumed by over 15 Crore people worldwide and it may minimise the incidence of neurodegenerative diseases and cancer. Some scientists pop it daily without waiting for its long-term efficacy.
Rapamycin is another drug, which has extended the lifespan of worms, mice and yeast and is now being contemplated for clinical trials in humans. In addition, stem cell and gene therapies are also doing the magic.
Metformin, a diabetes drug, has proven its efficacy in helping people live longer. It is consumed by over 15 Crore people worldwide and it may minimise the incidence of neurodegenerative diseases and cancer
Yet another hope popped up in the anti-ageing firmament when the FDA approved two drugs (one in 2021 and another in November 2022) to treat Alzheimer’s disease. It is a nasal vaccine. Although one may hear high-decibel rumblings and much ado about its efficacy, but, no scientist has denied its modest success in arresting the cognitive decline in patients.
The new drug, Lecanemab, has shown evidence of slowing cognitive decline in clinical trials. However, these drugs do not target disease progression but aim at removing a toxic protein called beta amyloid that piles up in the brains of patients. Of course, it is, thus, far very expensive and also triggers unsavoury side effects.
The second drug is Aducanumab which has not yet proven to arrest the loss of cognitive ability but is claimed to be moderately effective in battling out the ‘zombie’ cells, which stop working in the brain, yet act stubborn to die.
A major chunk of fresh investments has gone mainly into three buckets – organ regeneration, gene editing and epigenetic programming. Scientists believe that these three tools can indeed extend life.
In 2021, three major companies – Cambridge Epigenetix, Tempus and Chroma Medicine, raised funds to focus on epigenetic editing. Epigenetics is one therapy that influences gene expression instead of editing genetic code itself.
A good number of startups are focussed on regenerative medicines and organ replacement. Pittsburgh-based Startup LyGenesis uses lymph nodes to regrow organs inside bodies. It has got FDA nod for its first human trial. Its focus is on the last stage of liver disease.
Altos Labs is working on biological reprogramming to rejuvenate cells in the lab. It intends to apply the technology to entire animal bodies to halt biological ageing and then extend human longevity.
Now, the question is – What is biological ageing? Management guru Peter Drucker had said that what gets measured gets well-managed. So, for age-related disease, rolling back the clock would require obtaining a sharper understanding of earliest indications of problems gripping our mind and body so that more serious problems down the road could be warded off.
To standardise biological age indexing, many bio-tools have been developed to know our age not in chronological terms but in biological ones. Such indexing reveals how fast we are ageing. Our chronological age may be 55 but if our vital organs are healthy and we have been on a healthy diet, our biological age may be 44.
Immortalists strongly believe that they can use technology to prevent death. Like Artificial Intelligence (AI), they think that they can programme the human body. They are eyeing to control the evolution of mankind, not leaving anything to be regulated by nature
Dozens of startups have joined the bandwagon to come up with new tools and it has indeed become a lollipop-grab for health-fashionistas in rich countries. Although the FDA has not yet approved it, but, it is not illegal in many states in the USA and individuals in large numbers are going for such a test. These tests are marketed as premium wellness services with influencer endorsements on social media.
The richest startup Altos Labs, in which Jeff Bezos has also chipped in funds, is also pursuing the biological age technology, invented by anti-ageing researcher Steve Horvath. This technology accurately measures the age of cells or even whole organisms. Scientists believe that ageing biomarkers would help in developing age-reversal therapies. Altos Labs is focussed on biological re-programming, a tool developed by scientist Shinya Yamanaka in 2006. His work had revealed that by adding merely four proteins, now popularly known as Yamanaka factors, cells can be soaked with the quality of an all-rounder – that is – it can become any cell in the body. A Spanish scientist, in 2016, used this technique on mice and succeeded in extending their lifespan by six weeks. It is hoped that this technique would soon work well on human bodies as well and it may amount to a smack in the face of death!
Thanks to speedy improvement in medicines and medical science, life expectancy between 1900 to 2020 has doubled to above 73 years but ageing remains the biggest risk for diseases like cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and diabetes type-2. About one in 6000 persons reaches 100-mark and one in 50 lakhs goes past 110. The record-holder French citizen Jeanne Calment died in 1997 at 122 years and 164 days.
With ageing emerging as a major challenge, the FDA is mulling over sustained demand to treat it as a disease. If that happens, more billions would be poured into research to develop products which would promise El Dorado for the pharma industry worldwide. After all, the age of grandparents is catching up fast. From 50 Cr in 1960s it has jumped to 150 Cr by 2020 as per The Economist and the market-size would never shrink for decades to come.
Till the day these billion-dollar investments yield tangible results, let’s us follow what researchers at Harvard University have to say after analysing decades of data from 1.23 lakh adults – five habits may jack up life expectancy by 14 years in women and 12 years in men and they are – good diet, limited drinking but no smoking, healthy weight and regular exercise.
Another study done by Yale University reveals that positive views of old age are associated with a lower risk of Alzheimer’s and people with strong beliefs about ageing live an average of seven and half years longer than those caught in the whirlwind of numbingly bland views.
Let’s all hold our breath for quicker breakthroughs by a number of sprinting startups diving for a frantic churn and also stick to positive beliefs about a chirpy, energetic and joy-soaked grandparental days to live a bit longer before we embark on a voyage beyond life and confront technology-scared death. After all, life and death is a game of chicken.