Fixing the ‘problem’ of ageing is the mission of Silicon Valley, where billions is pouring into biotech firms working to ‘hack the code’ of life – despite concerns about the social implications.
De Grey isn’t the only one who sees a new flowering of anti-ageing research. “Radical life extension isn’t consigned to the realm of cranks and science fiction writers any more,” says David Masci, a researcher at the Pew Research Centre, who recently wrote a report on the topic looking at the scientific and ethical dimensions of radical life extension. “Serious people are doing research in this area and serious thinkers are thinking about this .”
Although funding pledges have been low compared to early hopes, billionaires – not just from the technology industry – have long supported research into the biology of ageing. Yet it has mostly been aimed at extending “healthspan”, the years in which you are free of frailty or disease, rather than lifespan, although an obvious effect is that it would also be extended (healthy people after all live longer).
“If a consequence of increasing health is that life is extended, that’s a good thing, but the most important part is keeping people healthy as long as possible,” says Kevin Lee, a director of the Ellison Medical Foundation, founded in 1997 by tech billionaire Larry Ellison, and which has been the field’s largest private funder, spending $45m annually. (The Paul F Glenn Foundation for Medical Research is another.) Whereas much biomedical research concentrates on trying to cure individual diseases, say cancer, scientists in this small field hunt something larger. They investigate the details of the ageing process with a view to finding ways to prevent it at its root, thereby fending off the whole slew of diseases that come along with ageing. Life expectancy has risen in developed countries from about 47 in 1900 to about 80 today, largely due to advances in curing childhood diseases. But those longer lives come with their share of misery. Age-related chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, stroke and Alzheimer’s are more prevalent than ever.
The standard medical approach – curing one disease at a time – only makes that worse, says Jay Olshansky, a sociologist at the University of Chicago School of Public Health who runs a project called the Longevity Dividend Initiative, which makes the case for funding ageing research to increase healthspan on health and economic grounds. “I would like to see a cure for heart disease or cancer,” he says. “But it would lead to a dramatic escalation in the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease.”