by Patrick Griffin
figures by Abby Burrus

There has been much talk in recent years about the disconnectedness of coastal elites, epitomized by Silicon Valley characters such as VC-mogul Peter Thiel and Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Their wealth and fame make them appear god-like, free of the mortal cares of middle-America. Yet, death, the great equalizer (it could also be said to be the great motivator), is something that they will experience in much the same way as anyone else.

This fact—that they will age and die—is not lost on these Silicon Valley elite, but with their superhuman resources, they believe they can buy a little more time. So, in recent years, West Coast billionaires have given untold millions to Bay Area startups that are trying to slow the aging process by combatting several of its root causes.

Could the cure for aging be imminent, kept secret until it’s fine-tuned in a Silicon Valley research lab, or are these billionaires just spending their money profligately? Here, I’ll discuss how three of these companies are trying to prolong the lives of their über-wealthy patrons (and everyone else)  and what it could mean if they succeed.

Unity Biotech and The Enemy Within

As we age, cells accumulate damage and become senescent, a state characterized by irreversible changes that stop them from dividing (Figure 1). Senescence is a valuable defense mechanism: cells that have accrued too much damage are at greater risk to become cancerous and divide uncontrollably. However, the build-up of senescent cells during the course of one’s lifetime can contribute to a number of age-related diseases (arthritis and diabetes, to name a couple), stemming from their constant release of inflammatory molecules.  

Figure 1. Cellular senescence As we age, cells lose the ability to divide, stagnating in a state called cellular senescence. These cells change shapes, grow larger, and release inflammatory molecules that can contribute to many age-associated diseases. A new class of drugs called senolytics—developed by companies like Unity Biotech—might help us live longer by selectively destroying senescent cells.

In Brisbane, California, a company called Unity Biotechnology wants to eliminate senescent cells specifically with a class of drugs called senolytics. Backed by Peter Thiel and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, the company’s premier senolytic, UBX0101, has had impressive results in trials for arthritis. The drug efficiently kills senescent cells and significantly reduces symptoms of the disease, which is spurred by inflammation.

However, the real promise of senolytics come from related studies in mice, which show that clearance of senescent cells increase average lifespan by more than 24%. Similar results in humans would increase average lifespan by more than a decade and a half. While the clinical trial of UBX0101 might be targeted at curing arthritis, it holds promise to extend human lifespan if it is shown to be safe and effective.

Ambrosia Plasma: Old Body, Young Blood

Another hallmark of aging is the body’s loss of its ability to make new cells when old ones die, causing a progressive decline in organ function with age. In part, this insidious process is due to the changing composition of our blood, which contains many cells and molecules that tell organs to regenerate or repair themselves.

To study how young blood spurs tissue regeneration, scientists started to employ a seemingly crazy technique: they joined old and young mice to each other, allowing their circulatory systems to fuse so that they share a blood supply (Figure 2). Incredibly, these experiments made the old mice more youthful in a number of ways, increasing their ability to regenerate tissues such as muscle, liver, and the brain, though the exact mechanism of how this occurs is hotly debated. For now, it’s thought that young blood has a number of circulating “youth factors” that can stimulate tissue repair in older animals.

Figure 2. Youth factors in blood Young blood has been shown to help the rejuvenation of older mice, allowing them to repair and replenish their tissues with the help of transferrable “youth factors”. Hoping to capitalize on this promising research, clinics like Ambrosia Plasma in San Francisco offer their aging patients transfusions of young blood.

Inspired by this research (and undeterred by the inevitable vampire quips), a San Francisco based company, Ambrosia, offers its patients plasma transfusion from young donors. For $8000, one can receive a liter of youthful plasma and evaluation as part of an ongoing clinical trial. And while its unknown whether any of the Bay Area billionaires actually receive transfusions from Ambrosia, Peter Thiel is purportedly interested in young blood therapy, and it has even been lampooned on the HBO’s comedy series Silicon Valley. Still, there is considerable work to be done before young blood is an established therapy for healthy aging in humans, so perhaps it’s best to let the billionaires be the guinea pigs.

Calico: Google It

A common technique of biologists is to draw inspiration from nature: find a species that exhibits some extraordinary trait and study it in hopes of applying the knowledge to human well-being. This strategy is employed by South San Francisco company Calico (California Life Company), which is the brainchild of Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page. The goal of the company is to understand the root causes of aging, and, in doing so, extend healthy human lifespan.

How the company will achieve that goal, however, is opaque. In the past several years, they have published several landmark papers, including a description of how egg cells in worms completely rejuvenate themselves upon fertilization and a paper showing that naked mole rats—which almost never get cancer and can live upwards of 30 years—do not become more likely to die as they age. However, the company is quite secretive with how these research studies might lead to treatments combating aging, not sharing much with the outside research world, and they don’t have any products available to the public. Perhaps they are keeping the cure for Brin and Page, slowly transforming the billionaires into mole rats or producing a special anti-aging pill made from money. For now, no one knows, but if anyone has the computing power to tackle aging, it’s Google.

The Age-Old Quest

The fight to stop aging has been waged by powerful people since the dawn of civilization. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the eponymous king sought immortality only to fall short in his quest. In the 1500s, Spanish conquistador Ponce de Leon searched in vain throughout the Caribbean and Florida for the Fountain of Youth. Perhaps the quest of Silicon Valley’s billionaires will end in much the same way: frustrated, having wasted some of the precious time they have.

For one, I hope not. Scientists are only just now starting to understand the root causes of aging, and in the future, there will certainly be new discoveries. Figuring out how to ameliorate or delay the symptoms of aging could have massive benefit to people’s lives and society generally. While people are living longer than ever before, they are also spending more of their lives in a state of disease. If senolytics, a blood-derived “youth” factor, or a special naked-mole-rat pill can delay the diseases of aging and provide another 10 years of healthy life, then the pursuit will be worthwhile.

Patrick Griffin is a Ph.D. student in the Genetics Department at Harvard University. You can find him on Twitter @patrick_griffN.

For more information:

  • To learn more about strategies to slow or reverse again in Silicon Valley, check out this New Yorker article
  • For more information about the science behind age reversal, check out this SITN article
  • To learn about age-related research, check out this SITN article on the peculiar aging process of naked mole rats

This article is part of the 2018 Special Edition — Tomorrow’s Technology: Silicon Valley and Beyond

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