Some billionaires are trying to conquer space. Others maintain a more earthbound ambition: to outsmart the Grim Reaper.
And deep-pocketed age-hackers are putting their money where their mouths are. Larry Ellison — chairman of the software giant Oracle — has donated around $500,000 to anti-aging research. Google co-founder Larry Page helped fund Calico, a lab that describes itself as wanting “to better understand the biology that controls aging and life span.”
Meanwhile, Peter Thiel — the entrepreneur behind PayPal — was an early investor in Unity Biotechnology, which is devising therapeutics to delay aging-related diseases at the cellular level. (The company raised $116 million in 2016.)
Nir Barzilai, author of “Age Later” and director of the Institute for Aging Research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, describes some of these high-profile anti-agers as “immortalists”: People who believe death is an option, rather than an eventuality — given the right “hacks.”
Because of that, “we expect $4.5 billion to be invested [in life- and health-extending science]” this year alone, he told The Post.
Despite being a player in this world, Barzilai takes a more measured approach: “Living forever might not be in the cards, but we are working on specific problems that will increase life span and healthspan,” or how long one stays healthy for.
Nevertheless, ardent believers buy into the concept of living upwards of 5,000 years or even, as Thiel told the New Yorker, “forever.” It’s the kind of thinking that gets money funneled into experiments such as the one conducted by researchers at the National Academy of Medicine’s Healthy Longevity Global Grand Challenge, in which an old mouse and a young one were surgically connected so that they shared blood, resulting in the oldster becoming youthful.
A similar study, done by researchers at Stanford University and University of California San Francisco, showed a turnaround in cognitive aging and better memory in elder mice that were injected with the plasma of younger ones.
If the planet’s richest men have their way, prolonging life and curtailing deadly diseases may be no more pie-in-the-sky than home computers were in the 1940s.
And some of the world’s top scientists are working right alongside them.
David Sinclair, author of “Lifespan,” who heads up labs at Harvard Medical School and University of New South Wales in Australia is a diehard believer in extended life spans. “By the turn of the next century, a person who is 122 on the day of his or her death may be said to have lived a full, though not particularly long, life,” he wrote in his book. Living until 150 “may not be out of reach.”
In the not-too-distant future, he predicts, age-reversing injections, laced with a small number of “reprogramming genes,” will be administered to people who turn 30 and be made to kick in 15 years later: “Gray hair would disappear. Wounds would heal faster. Wrinkles would fade . . . Like Benjamin Button, you will feel 35 again, then 30, then 25.”
For now, though, Sinclair is focused on a potential aging culprit: the epigenome, which is made up of chemical compounds and proteins that can attach to DNA and direct it. As he explained to Popular Mechanics, the epigenome turns genes on and off, but it loses information as we age. (Sinclair likens the degeneration to “a scratch on a CD.”) He said, “I think it stops cells from reading the right genes.”
While working to fix that life-altering glitch, Sinclair tries to stave off his own aging with more accessible tricks. He takes a regimen of vitamins (including D and K, the latter believed to keep bones healthy) and medications such as Metformin, which is clinically prescribed for Type 2 diabetes, but also appears to reduce incidents of other aging-related diseases.
He also fasts on a daily basis — by skipping breakfast and having a late lunch, which, he said on a YouTube video, has been shown to “extend [the] life span of everything from yeast cells . . . to monkeys” — exercises and eschews red meat.
Barzilai and Sinclair — who are friends — are simpatico in their beliefs about the epigenome, exercise and diet. But Barzilai said he can give or take the vitamins, describing them as “Good for the economy; [but] they do not stop aging and are mostly helpful if you have a deficiency.”
He believes that “aging drives diseases. If you stop aging, you stop diseases.” In other words, Barzilai said, “The mechanisms that target aging are the same mechanisms that extend healthspan and extend life span.”
Along that line, he, too, has been doggedly investigating the diabetes medicine Metformin as a source of healthfulness. Describing the pills as “safe and generic and cheap,” he personally takes them, and is currently leading a study called TAME: Targeting Aging with Metformin. Barzilai believes that the drug, which helps the body to use insulin more effectively, also slows other hallmarks of aging (including the decline of immunity). “In studies with animals, we are using it to [lower incidents of] Alzheimer’s, cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes 2. [Studies] show that old people using Metformin had one-third the mortality from COVID.”
The study will take another 4 to 6 years to complete, but Barzilai said that those interested in taking it for off-label purposes can ask their doctors.
Barzilai, a newly minted senior citizen at 65, has slightly more accessible goals than the immortality-chasing billionaires who finance research like his. “I’m sticking to the idea of being healthy until 85,” he said.
“If you tell me I will live for 12 billion years, I’ll wonder how many catastrophes I will have to endure. I don’t want that. I want to extend health. Longevity is a side effect.”