Around 200 B.C., China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, accidentally killed himself trying to cheat death; he took “mortality-defying pills” made from mercury. In the 16th century, Diane de Poitiers, mistress of Henry II, died from drinking gold chloride attempting to preserve her beauty. And in 1942, Pope Innocent VIII was done in by a blood transfusion from three young boys whose youth he wanted to absorb. Antiquity sure loves irony.
The quest for immortality — or just really long life — hasn’t had the greatest of historical precedents. Yet, somehow, it’s become Silicon Valley’s latest obsession. The last few years have seen a surge in tech billionaires investing big money in biotech firms — from the Google-backed Calico to the SENS Research Foundation, funded by PayPal’s Peter Thiel — that are trying to hack our biology in order to slow aging, extend life, and, potentially, postpone death indefinitely. This isn’t virtual reality — it’s virtually a reality.
“Aging is humanity’s worst problem,” says Aubrey de Grey, the 53-year-old co-founder of SENS, an industry leader. The wizard-bearded biologist is the poster boy for a growing cohort of researchers who believe we’re on the brink of a scientific revolution — one that will see us actualize Qin Shi Huang’s dream (sans the magic pills). SENS’ goal is to undo the wear and tear of aging via therapies that replace or regenerate damaged cells, tissue, and organs. For instance, they’re developing a treatment that targets and kills senescent cells — that is, cells that cease dividing and accumulate over time, degrading tissue and cells around them. De Grey says such work will “alleviate and postpone the ill-health of old age,” which could extend life well beyond 120. “There shouldn’t be any limit to lifespan, just as there’s no limit to how long we can keep vintage cars going.”
Maybe you think that sounds like something out of a bad Wachowski film. De Grey’s heard that one before. For years, life extension researchers were met with skepticism, even derision in the science community. (“He’s brilliant, but is he nuts?” reads an MIT article on de Grey from 2005). To this day, there are still moral objections. During a recent Ask Me Anything session on Reddit, Bill Gates kvetched, “It seems pretty egocentric while we still have malaria and TB for rich people to fund things so they can live longer.”
But thanks to recent breakthroughs and an impending senior citizen boom, science has begun thinking about aging in terms Gates would be familiar with: as a disease that can be treated. Earlier this year, the Mayo Clinic showed that removing senescent cells slowed aging and increased lifespans in middle-aged mice — a follow-up to a 2011 study that’s spurred a supernova of mainstream interest in longevity research. In February, heavily-funded startup Unity Biotechnology launched with the sole purpose of testing the Mayo Clinic’s findings on humans. At the same time, the FDA approved human trials to see if metformin — a diabetes drug shown to extend cell life — has anti-aging effects. “With what’s being worked on today,” says SENS co-founder David Gobel, “I feel comfortable saying that by 2030, 90 will be the new 50.”
Of course, that raises the question: do we really need to live that long? Did Gollum seem any happier loitering around for a few extra centuries? “When you hit 60, it’s like falling off a cliff,” argues Gobel, who’s 64. “Just when the movie gets interesting, we start to dim. However, if you could stay able-bodied and loving life into your later years, then why not keep living?”
Well, a variety of reasons: overpopulation, limited resources, social stagnation. But, hey, at least we’ll be around longer to drum up some solutions.