What price immortality? It is the grand irony of the human condition that while the young yearn for wealth, the wealthy yearn for youth. So if you just happened to be the richest man on Earth, how much would you spend on a chance to live forever? At 57, newly-retired Amazon boss Jeff Bezos is hardly playing chess with the Grim Reaper, but that hasn’t stopped him backing a new company that wants to defeat ageing itself.
Founded earlier this year in the Los Altos hills above Silicon Valley, Altos is backed by at least US$270 million of investor cash, an undisclosed amount of which is reported to have come from Bezos. The company has recruited brilliant minds from around the world, plucking specialists from elite labs and universities, instantly multiplying their salaries and freeing them from the bureaucracy of ordinary institutional life. At Altos, theirs is a simple, single task: discover the elixir of youth.
Bezos is not alone; Silicon Valley founders’ other, bigger, preoccupation with splashing their cash, after space missions, is breaching the frontiers of biotechnology. From Amazon to Google, Facebook and beyond, a new billionaire boys’ health club is afoot.
Peter Thiel, 53, who co-founded Paypal and, as an early investor, acquired a 10 per cent stake in Facebook for US$500,000, has signalled his intention to live “forever”. Once asked for his views on death, he famously replied: “Basically I’m against it.” He has invested in Unity Biotechnology, a company seeking a remedy for the ageing process in cells, known as senescence. Bezos, too, was a Unity investor when the company raised US$116 million in the autumn of 2016.
By then Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin had already announced Calico – that’s the California Life Company. Like Altos, it too recruited widely and paid handsomely, all in the name of understanding the fundamental processes of ageing, and harnessing insights to enhance longevity. What’s hard is to be sure how close our lifespans are to being altered because, as with so much in the tech world, secrecy is prized.
Of course, it’s easy to poke fun at these middle-aged men struggling to come to terms with death; something that, for all their billions, they can’t bend to their will. Silicon Valley even has a US$1 million “Longevity Prize” to attract projects that “cure ageing”. But are they so wrong to aim so high? Bezos, after all, has just blasted himself into space in his own rocket – not bad for a man who started an online bookshop. Indeed the faith that the denizens of Silicon Valley have in its model – funding bold ventures that upturn established norms – actively encourages hubris. And human health is on an extraordinary upward curve.
Lifespans have doubled in the past 150 years, as infections, vaccines, nutrition and maternal health have radically improved. The big killers today, notably cancer and dementia, are far harder to solve. Researchers around the world specialise in treating them as individual diseases. But what if we approached them in a different way, say the gurus of the West Coast, not as compartmentalised conditions, but as common symptoms of getting old. Then, they say, it is age that is the sickness to be cured.
The passage of time does indeed dramatically increase the chances of getting such diseases. So no wonder the possibility of turning back the clock is so appealing. And that’s why it’s so important that the man chairing Altos’ scientific advisory board is Shinya Yamanaka.
In 2012 Yamanaka shared a Nobel Prize for the discovery that four proteins, now known as Yamanaka Factors, can induce cells to return to an earlier state, neither jaded nor specialised by the passage of time, but once again youthful and full of potential – as if a retired accountant found himself once again a leather-jacketed teen deciding on what high school subjects to take. Four years after Yamanaka’s award, not just cells, but whole mice were treated with the factors, becoming obviously younger.