Why the super-rich are ploughing billions into the booming ‘immortality industry’

ES Magazine

ES MAG FRONT COVERImagine a world in which you’re 90 years old and nowhere near middle-aged. An app on your phone has hacked your DNA code, so you know exactly when to go to the doctor to receive gene therapy to prevent all the diseases you don’t yet have. A microchip in your skin sends out a signal if you’re at risk of developing a wrinkle — so you step out of the sun and hotfoot it to your dermatologist. Every evening you sync your brain-mapping device with The Cloud, so even if you were caught up in a fatal accident you’d still be able to cheat death — every detail of your life would simply be downloaded to one of the perfect silicon versions you’d had made of yourself, ensuring you last until at least your 1,000th birthday.

This may sound like science fiction but it could be your fate — provided you can afford it. If current research develops into medicine, in the London of the future the super-rich won’t simply be able to buy the best things in life, they’ll be able to buy life itself by transforming themselves into a bio-engineered super-race, capable of living, if not forever, then for vastly longer than the current UK life expectancy of 81 years.

The science of turning back the clock has never been more advanced. In Boston, a drug capable of reversing half a lifetime of ageing in mice is about to be tested on humans in a medical trial monitored by Nasa. NMN is a compound found naturally in broccoli which boosts levels of NAD, a protein involved in energy production that depletes as we get older. Professor David Sinclair, who headed up the initial research at Australia’s University of New South Wales, doses himself with 500mg daily, and claims that he has already become more youthful. According to blood tests analysing the state of the 48-year-old’s cells, prior to taking the pills Sinclair was in the same physical shape as a 57-year-old, but now he’s ‘31.4’.

Meanwhile, Hollywood stars looking for the elixir of youth might want to keep a close eye on developments at Newcastle University where last February Professor Mark Birch-Machin identified, for the first time, the mitochondrial complex which depletes over time, causing skin to age. Mitochondria are the battery packs that power our cells — so if we want to slow down ageing we need to keep them topped up; doing so would be transformative for our appearance. In the future, Birch-Machin believes, we’ll not only be taking pills and applying cosmetics, we’ll have implants in our skin. ‘Implants will tell us the state of it — how well our batteries are doing, how many free radicals, and will inform us how we are doing with our lifestyle,’ he says. ‘You can store it, log it, have that linked to your healthcare package.’

Such medical discoveries are being translated into treatment at an unprecedented rate. The day after the results of Birch-Machin’s study were published in The New York Times, his department was contacted by nine companies hoping to turn his research into revolutionary pharmaceuticals. In 2009, Elizabeth Blackburn, a professor of biology and physiology at the University of California, won a Nobel Prize for her work on telomeres, the protective tips on our chromosomes that break down as we get older, leaving us prone to age-related diseases. Blackburn discovered an enzyme called telomerase that can stop the shortening of telomeres by adding DNA — like a plastic tip fixing the end of a fraying shoelace. Today, rich Californians now use telomeres therapy to prolong the life of their pets.

Last year, in Monterey, California, the start-up Ambrosia (founded by Dr Jesse Karmazin, a DC-based physician) began trialling the effect of blood transfusions, pumping blood from teenagers into older patients, following studies that found that blood plasma from young mice can rejuvenate old mice, improving their memory, cognition and physical activity.

Dr Richard Siow, who heads up the Age Research department at King’s College London, believes we may be soon reach a significant point in anti-ageing research because of the massive amounts of money allocated by governments and charities worldwide in the hope of making a breakthrough. Indeed, according to a survey by Transparency Market Research, by 2019 the anti-ageing market will be worth £151 billion worldwide. ‘Life expectancy in many countries has already increased from 65-68 all the way through to 70, 80, 85 because people are now surviving heart disease, strokes and cancer,’ points out Siow, who has been studying anti-ageing compounds found in Indian spices and tea. ‘We are now redefining what ageing means. How can we extend that period of health so we’re not a burden?’

It is in Silicon Valley, however, that the really radical advances seem likely to be made. Freshly minted internet tycoons appear willing to pay any price to prolong their lives and a critical mass of geeks is working furiously towards understanding our biology at an unprecedented rate. Take Dmitry Itskov, the Russian billionaire founder of the life-extension non-profit 2045 Initiative, who is paying scientists to map the human brain so our minds can be decanted into a computer and either downloaded to a robot body or synced with a hologram. Or Joon Yun, a physician and hedge fund manager who insisted at an anti-ageing symposium of the California elite in March that ageing is simply a programming error encoded in our DNA. ‘If something is encoded, you can crack the code,’ he told an audience which, according to The New Yorker, included multi-billionaire Google co-founder Sergey Brin and Goldie Hawn. ‘Thermodynamically, there should be no reason we can’t defer entropy indefinitely. We can end ageing forever.’

And then there’s PayPal founder (and Donald Trump supporter) Peter Thiel, who has a net worth of £2.1 billion and has reportedly invested in start-up Unity Biotechnology — which aims to develop drugs that ‘make many debilitating consequences of ageing as uncommon as polio’. Thiel has also offered funding to individual researchers, such as Aubrey de Grey, the Chelsea-born, Cambridge and California-based gerontologist who ploughed the £11 million he inherited from his artist mother, Cordelia, into founding the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence Research Foundation in Mountain View, which promotes the use of rejuvenation biotechnology in anti-ageing research.

Of course, the best known element of the ‘immortality industry’ is cryogenic freezing. Despite its reputation as the last resort of wealthy cranks, it remains in business; at the Alcor cryonics facility in Arizona, 149 corpses have already been preserved in liquid nitrogen at a temperature of minus 196°C since it was founded in 1972. Worldwide there are thousands of people signed up for cryogenics services, including Alcor’s 28 clients in the UK. The service doesn’t come cheap (full-body freezing costs £165,000, while having your head cut off and frozen is around £60,000) but it has some impressive-sounding clients, including de Grey and Dr Anders Sandberg, research fellow at Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute.

‘It’s a gamble but it’s still much better than being dead,’ says Sandberg. He envisages a world in which the brain is paramount, so when his is revived it could be transformed into a sort of computer programme containing all of his memories of life on earth. ‘If you actually exist as software you have a lot of options. I do enjoy having a physical body but why have just one when you could have lots of different ones?’

Of course, if such experiments do come to fruition, they could have far reaching implications for our society. Already, a rapidly ageing population is placing enormous stress on healthcare and pension systems worldwide. De Grey sees the problem of over-population being cured by a dwindling birth-rate. But he says little about the impact this would have on the young.

Then there’s the question of whether we will one day be living in a world defined by gaping differences in life expectancy — where the ‘haves’ live for 10 times longer than the ‘have nots’. ‘Mortality has been the great equaliser from beggars to kings to emperors,’ says Dr Jack Kreindler, medical director at the Centre for Health & Human Performance in Harley Street. ‘If people embark on really sophisticated, targeted therapies to repair damage to their cells… I think we’re definitely entering into “them” and “us” territory.’ As projected in Homo Deus, the best-selling book of Israeli academic Yuval Noah Harari, Kreindler adds, we could witness ‘a schism in humanity where we have some people so bioengineered that only the very, very rich can sustain the amount of maintenance required to look after their enhancements, while others simply can’t afford to do anything but be natural.’

Nevertheless, the quest to overcome mortality continues apace. Last year, at a TEDx symposium Kreindler convened at the Science Museum, Daisy Robinton, a post-doctoral scientist at Harvard University, put forward the theory that ageing should be considered ‘a disease in itself.’ She described the excitement in the medical community at the discovery of CRISPR/Cas9, a protein that seems to allow us to target and delete genetic mutations in our DNA. ‘Gene editing provides an opportunity to not only cure genetic disease but also to prevent diseases from ever coming into being,’ Robinton claimed. ‘To treat our susceptibilities before they ever transform into symptoms.’

If this theory became fact, dying of old age might one day seem as outmoded as being felled by one of the mass killers of the past for which we get vaccinated. If gene editing on this scale is possible, Kreindler says we have to ask: ‘Can your cells become immortal, can they live forever?’

At the Centre for Health & Human Performance, treatments may still be firmly rooted in the 21st century, focused as they are on helping athletes optimise their fitness and celebrities such as David Walliams complete gruelling challenges for Sport Relief. But Kreindler is clearly in awe of what the latest medical advances might mean for the future of the human race.

‘I don’t believe this should be only for the very rich,’ he says. ‘If you’re going to do things, don’t just do it for the billionaires, do it for the billions.’

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