Living Forever: Can Money and Science Beat Death?

Carolyn Abraham | July 14th, 2017

The super rich of Silicon Valley want to solve aging. Is it California dreaming—or can big dough, Big Data and big dreams really beat Death?

The tech titans of Silicon Valley have a death wish. As with most people who like living, they wish that death would go away or at least arrive decades later than it usually does. But unlike most people, Northern California’s high-tech billionaires can do more than wish. They’re pouring millions into new projects, companies and research institutes to find a “cure” for aging—casting the very process of growing old as a disease.

As Google CEO Larry Page has helpfully pointed out, no one is immune: “Illness and aging affect all our families,” he said when the search-engine giant launched its death-defying venture, Calico.

Of course, the captains of digital industry are following in well-worn footsteps. The quest for eternal youth has drawn in the rich and famous for eons: ancient Chinese emperors, Alexander the Great, Ponce de León, Walt Disney. But theirs has a modern twist. Not only are they vying to stretch their own healthy lifespans, but everyone else’s, too.

“It’s not just about making billionaires live longer. It’s about increasing the healthy lives of everyone,” says Dr. Brian K. Kennedy, professor and CEO of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging.

The non-profit research hub in Novato, Calif., where some 200 scientists investigate various aspects of aging, forged a partnership with Google’s Calico last summer. That was after Kennedy ran into its founders at a meeting and told them that their mission to lengthen the human lifespan was “identical to our own.”

It’s a mission that might have sounded like science fiction not so long ago. But last year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first human trial of a drug to slow aging. Metformin, an old generic diabetes medication that has been found to lengthen the lives of numerous lab animals, is to be tested for its ability to delay the onset of age-related diseases.

Officially, the drug is available only by prescription to treat diabetics but, predictably, many people aren’t waiting for the results. (Several sites already sell it online as a weight-loss aid and potential longevity booster, though the 60-year-old pill is not without its side effects.)

Still, with the FDA go-ahead, the trial has sent a clear message that aging research has entered its prime. Once dismissed as a frivolous field of quacks and charlatans, serious scientists are now trying to solve the aging puzzle: why does time take us down—and does it have to?

Next: It’s not about immortality as much as vitality

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA - NOVEMBER 09: Breakthrough Prize Founders Anne Wojcicki (L) and Sergey Brin speak onstage during the Breakthrough Prize Awards Ceremony Hosted By Seth MacFarlane at NASA Ames Research Center on November 9, 2014 in Mountain View, California. (Photo by Steve Jennings/Getty Images for Breakthrough Prize)
Google co-founder Sergey Brin and his former wife, Anne Wojcicki, co-founder of 23andMe. (Photo by Steve Jennings/Getty Images for Breakthrough Prize)

The tantalizing prospect is that the tricks of high tech, its coding and complex algorithms, might somehow be used to upgrade the human operating system that is DNA. After all, to a great extent, DNA directs aging. And aging is the common risk factor for most common chronic diseases. So, Kennedy says, if you can stop it, perhaps you can also stop people from getting sick. It’s not about immortality as much as vitality—”health span more than lifespan,” he says: no one wants to live forever in a hospital bed.

Silicon Valley’s growing stake in longevity research, along with that of Big Pharma, venture capitalists and corporate investors, Kennedy predicts, signals the start of a “medical revolution.”

Certainly the timing couldn’t be better. With the number of people age 80 and over projected to almost quadruple worldwide to 395 million by 2050, governments everywhere are bracing for the socioeconomic burden of caring for a degenerating population. According to Inc. magazine, the regenerative medicine market alone, currently valued at $1.6 billion, could soar to $20 billion by 2025. Fighting mortality has become big business.

And so the storied valley south of San Francisco Bay—home to the planet’s biggest businesses, famous for its madcap culture that would bring us driverless cars, and birthplace of the personal computer age that has utterly changed our lives—has become a breeding ground for efforts to dramatically extend our lives.

Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison, who has publicly proclaimed his desire to live forever, has plowed upward of $430 million into the cause. Peter Thiel, PayPal co-founder and Facebook’s first major backer, has invested in several anti-aging ventures and donated $3.5 million to the Methuselah Foundation, the non-profit organization that hopes to make 90 the new 50 by 2030. Thiel has also funded the foundation’s co-founder, Aubrey de Grey, the controversial bio-gerontologist, who may be as famous for his foot-long beard as his brazen belief in the 1,000-year lifespan.

Famed biochemist Craig Venter, who was one of the first to decode the human genome, and engineer and physician Peter Diamandis, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who co-founded Singularity University and the X Prize Foundation, have launched Human Longevity Inc. with plans to stretch the healthy years of human life through genomics-based research.

Then there are the prizes. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, along with Google co-founder Sergey Brin and his former wife, Anne Wojcicki, co-founder of DNA-testing company 23andMe, and venture capitalist Yuri Milner and his wife, Julia Milner, are funding the annual Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences. Reported to be the largest monetary award in sciences, it gives $3 million each to researchers who make life-extending discoveries.

Meanwhile, hedge fund manager Joon Yun has launched the Palo Alto Longevity Prize. Backed by a number of companies and angel investors, it promises a series of major cash awards to scientists who figure out how to “hack the code of life” and push the human lifespan beyond 120 years (currently thought to be a human life’s upper limit). Yun is funding the first two $500,000 prizes out of his own pocket.

Next: Google vs. Death

Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

But few enterprises have attracted as much attention as Calico. Short for the California Life Company, Google launched the independent venture in 2013 with a promise to invest up to $750 million. And when the largest publicly traded company in the world unveils its intentions to beat mortality, the world takes notice. The cover story in Time magazine billed it as a battle of the ages: Google vs. Death.

The Mountain View, Calif., Internet behemoth, which now sits under the umbrella of Alphabet Inc., is no stranger to the health sphere. In 2008, it created the short-lived Google Health, intended to be a centralized hub of an individual’s medical information, but, with too few users, it died in 2011. It has also invested in 23andMe, and it was one of that firm’s direct-to-consumer genetic tests that revealed Google’s Brin carries a gene mutation that substantially raises his risk of developing Parkinson’s disease. Brin, whose mother has Parkinson’s, shared his news publicly in his personal blog and has since become a major backer of Parkinson’s research.

But Calico’s aims go beyond hunting a cure for any one disease. As Page told Time magazine, “One of the things I thought was amazing is that if you solve cancer, you’d add about three years to people’s average life expectancy. We think of solving cancer as this huge thing that’ll totally change the world. But when you really take a step back and look at it, yeah, there are many, many tragic cases of cancer, and it’s very, very sad but, in the aggregate, it’s not as big an advance as you might think.” Instead, Calico is targeting the scourge of time itself.

If Google brought the mission instant heft, founder Arthur Levinson, Calico’s CEO, gave it quick credibility. The legendary Levinson, a biochemist, research scientist and widely lauded leader (www.glassdoor.com rated him the “nicest” CEO in 2008), is the former long-time head of Genentech.

The trail-blazing biotech firm made its name plying the power of genetic engineering to make breakthrough medicines—from the first synthetic form of insulin to the first precision medicine for breast cancer (Herceptin). Levinson also happens to be chairman of Apple Inc., replacing the late Steve Jobs at the helm of the world’s second most valuable company.

The hype has been an easy sell. Though more than one observer has mocked the hubris. Asked what he thinks about the immortality research boom on a community website on Reddit, Bill Gates, former chairman and CEO, now Technology Advisor to Microsoft, and billionaire philanthropist wrote, “It seems pretty egocentric while we still have malaria and TB for rich people to fund things so they can live longer.”

But Gates added: “It would be nice to live longer though, I admit.”

Which is why, beyond the self-interests of the Valley’s investors, a genuine excitement is bubbling around the possibility that one of the tech sector’s well-funded forays into biology might somehow pay off. In part, because the significant strides researchers have made in understanding how and why we age has a lot to do with technology. Studying the genetic roots of degeneration and disease depends on the Big Data power only computation can bring.

Next: The costs of reading DNA

Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer and founder of Facebook Inc., pauses at the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival in Cannes, France, on Wednesday, June 23, 2010. Facebook Inc., the world's most popular social-networking site, is "pretty close" to announcing a deal with a geographic-location service, Zuckerberg said. Photographer: Antoine Antoniol/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. (Photographer: Antoine Antoniol/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The marriage of tech and biology simply “makes a lot of sense,” says Brendan Frey, PhD, FRSC, president and CEO of Deep Genomics. “It’s obvious that humans just aren’t capable of ‘reading DNA’—we need computers to do it for us.”

While costs of reading DNA have fallen sharply, allowing researchers to amass an ever-growing collection of genetic information (much of it stored in the clouds of leading Internet companies), there’s still a major gap in understanding what it means. No one knows yet precisely how DNA relates to a person’s traits and physical characteristics, how it might help to keep one youthful longer than her peers or age him prematurely. In other words, scientists are still figuring out how the script gives rise to performance.

“It is, to a significant degree, an information technology problem,” says Frey, whose company specializes in genetic research that relies on deep learning, a budding branch of artificial intelligence. “Essentially, we need computer systems that can mimic at a statistical level how cells turn DNA into life.” With this kind of information, Frey says, “it is possible to figure out how genetics impacts all sorts of things, including longevity. It’s a wonderful opportunity.”

In 2014, after a 10-year effort, Frey and his team at the University of Toronto unveiled the first prototype of a biological browser capable of sorting through millions of mutations in DNA to spot the ones that cause disease—much the same way a search engine combs the Internet for relevant answers. Frey has since spun his U of T project into Deep Genomics—a start-up that’s attracted seed funding from Silicon Valley.

“Dozens of companies, ranging from genetic testing companies to search engine companies to the big pharmas, have reached out to us to explore using the Deep Genomics (search) engine,” Frey says.

Few details are known about the specific projects going on at Calico. Google may have built its fortunes on information, but its spin-off gives very little out. In response to an interview request, a company spokesperson said, “Thanks very much for reaching out. Calico is heads down and 100 per cent focused internally right now, so isn’t pursuing any media opportunities…”

What is clear is that the company has been on a deal-making spree, partnering with researchers and institutes at various universities, including Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. It’s also made a $1.5 billion deal with pharmaceutical firm AbbVie to bring to market whatever clock-stopping therapies it designs.

Meanwhile, its partnership with the Buck Institute has already resulted in a number of Calico scientists setting up shop there. But, says Kennedy, he’s not permitted to say how many or what they’re up to.

Next: The health system has it backwards

April 22, 2005 - San Francisco, California, United States: Cynthia Kenyon at UCSF Mission Bay campus has found a way to increase the lifespan of microscopic worms by suppressing a single gene. (Mike Kepka / San Francisco Chronicle / Polaris) ///
Calico’s vice-president of aging research, scientist Cynthia Kenyon. (Mike Kepka / San Francisco Chronicle / Polaris)

Still, it seems safe to say genomics is playing a lead role in Calico’s show. The company’s vice-president of aging research is molecular biologist Cynthia Kenyon, best known for doubling the lifespan of the roundworm by tweaking a single gene. The early ’90s work was a groundbreaker, not only offering proof that genes control the rate of aging—but that one gene in particular has a major impact. Modifying it has also extended the lifespan of mice. Several studies since have shown that variant forms of the human version of this gene—known as FOX03A—are strongly linked to longevity: most centenarians, from various ethnic groups, carry it.

Calico should have little trouble mining the genomes of those with unusually long life spans. Google has its stake in 23andMe, which has a DNA database of more than a million samples. Last July, Calico announced a deal with Ancestry.com, the world’s largest Internet genealogy company, which helps people trace their family history through records and documents but also DNA.

The Utah-based firm recently launched a genetic-testing service through AncestryDNA, and Business Insider reports the company also has access to more than a million DNA samples. What’s more, about 90 per cent of donors have consented to having their samples shared anonymously with other companies—which could reveal the genes of those who have longevity running in their families.

Kennedy, who first began his work on the biology of aging at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology working with yeast, says it’s unlikely there will be one magic bullet that turns back the aging clock.

Rather, he says, “There are probably about 10 major systems that drive aging,” including those linked to the longevity gene. But what the animal research suggests is that these systems can be overridden: “If you’re a mouse and if you want to live longer,” he jokes, “we’ve got the answer for you.”

For now, though, he says the health system has it backwards. “We wait until we get really sick and then spend a fortune trying to put you back together.” Yet not very successfully, he points out: life expectancy in the U.S. ranks 50th in the world, he says, below Canada.

Having Silicon Valley billionaires and the powerhouse involvement of the tech sector throw their might behind aging research could help change that. Kennedy says: “I think having a lot of people thinking about this using different perspectives and resources is a good thing.”

In the meantime, he says, researchers are working to convince drug regulators that aging is a disease itself.

Without that designation, he says, “How do you get approval for a drug to treat something that isn’t a disease?”

A version of this story appeared in the June 2016 issue with the headline, “Can I Live Forever?”, p. 44-48.