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MIT Technology Review

The transhumanists who want to live forever

For a core of longevity true believers, the time to intervene is now.

Tranhumanist James ClementTranhumanist James Clement
Tranhumanist James Clement
portrait by Ivan Kashinsky

“How old are you?” James Clement wanted to know.

I turn 50 this year. There’s a new creaking in my bones; my skin doesn’t snap back the way it used to. It’s developed a dull thickness—you can’t tickle me at all. My gums are packing it in and retreating toward my jaw. These changes have been gradual or inexplicably sudden, like the day when I could no longer see the typed words that are my profession. Presbyopia, the ophthalmologist told me. Totally normal. You’re middle-aged.

To Clement, though, my age was great news. “Yep, you are going to live forever,” he said. “I think anybody under 50 who does not have a genetic liability will make it to longevity escape velocity.”

Clement, 63, is a spry man with a shaved head and clear eyes, who spends his days gulping vitamins and trying to figure out how to make people live longer, including himself, his parents, and even me. From a home and several outbuildings in Gainesville, Florida, Clement runs BetterHumans, which he calls the world’s “first transhumanist research organization.” With funds from wealthy elderly men he knows, he is independently exploring drugs known to extend the healthy life span of rodents. Using a calculator, he extrapolates what a suitable human dose might be, and then finds people who will take them.

If he thinks the results look safe and have a hint of promise, he will recommend the treatments to his parents, who are in their 90s, and to his financial supporters. “I don’t think it’s happening fast enough,” he says. “I use my parents as my motivation. If I were doing it for humanity—well, that is not as urgent.”

Clement’s open-plan kitchen is a laboratory too. On the counter, I saw pill bottles, and jugs half-full of white powders from Chinese suppliers, whose low prices are part of what allows his nonprofit to do human research “on a shoestring.”

“Are those all the vitamins you take?” I asked, pointing.

Brain freezing. That’s the backup plan.

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“No, these are,” he said, opening a cabinet with four shelves stocked with neatly organized containers: kelp, gamma E, policosanol, super K, acetyl-L-carnitine, DHA, pomegranate extract, and so on. A different cabinet held the nighttime capsules. He has learned to gulp them by the fistful. 

Trying to forestall age isn’t without risk. The day I met him, Clement was recovering from a serious fall after he blacked out. Two years ago, he got a pacemaker installed. He believes a serious problem with his heart was brought on by an over-the-counter neutraceutical, the root extract berberine. It can cause the heart to beat slower, a condition called bradycardia. “I think that’s a legitimate story to tell people,” he says. “You don’t always know.”

Escape velocity

Transhumanism is a patchwork of beliefs about how technology will enhance the human condition, maybe radically so. There are Extropians and brain uploaders, artists keen to paint in virtual worlds, and do-it-yourself biohackers ready to have electronic chips implanted in their bodies. One common thread, though, is the hope for super-longevity.

Who wouldn’t want to reach 110, if not 500? Unlike mere armchair futurists, the life extensionists are prepared to experiment on themselves, and others, using vitamins and prescription cancer drugs, as well as compounds available only by finagling them from chemical suppliers.

“It’s not supposed to be for people,” said Richard Daly, a retired plastics manufacturer I met in Florida, of the peptide he swears reduced his biological age by four years. He winked. If a scientific paper points to a promising molecule, someone in “the community” has found a way to take it.

Lately the idea of living longer, maybe a lot longer, seems more realistic. As biologists uncover the fundamental facts of life, even ivory--tower academics now claim they know what the molecular “hallmarks” of aging are. In their lab animals, at least—roundworms and white mice—they can regularly increase life spans by 20% or 30% and sometimes more.

The Church of Perpetual Life facade
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Given these clues, Clement is expanding his medicine cabinet of pills. So far he has financed and supervised four small studies, in volunteers, of treatments found to extend the healthy lives of rodents—the immune drug rapamycin, the supplement NAD+, a combination of compounds that kill off aged cells, and injections of plasma concentrated from umbilical cords. His aim is “to do as many small trials as possible” to generate and publish basic information on safety and possible benefits. With that, he says, people interested in life extension “can decide to take the risk.”

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The payoff? Hanging in there until scientists ultimately cure death. Ray Kurzweil, a Google research director and the author of books on a coming technological “singularity,” tells people to wear seatbelts, avoid extreme sports, and exercise—in other words, stick around until science reaches “escape velocity” and life is prolonged by innovations that add years faster than they pass.

Double dose

Clement, a lawyer by training, sees his job as bringing that day closer and making sure it’s affordable to everyone, “not just billionaires.” One potential aging treatment he is giving some 30 volunteers is a drug combination identified in 2015 at the Mayo Clinic by researcher James Kirkland as a way to selectively kill malfunctioning “senescent” cells in mice. Kirkland this year published his own pilot study exploring his treatment in 26 volunteers with pulmonary disease.

I thought the two studies—one from America’s number-one-ranked hospital, another from an unknown researcher in Florida—were remarkably similar. But there was one difference: Clement has taken the drug combination six times himself and gotten his parents to do so as well. In 2018, Kirkland cautioned longevity seekers in the pages of the Journal of the American Medical Association: “Patients should be advised not to self-medicate with senolytic agents or other drugs that target fundamental aging processes in the expectation that conditions alleviated in mice will be alleviated in people.”

But Mayo has stoked the phenomenon with press releases talking up potentially “transformative” anti-aging results from its labs. Kirkland’s combination of drugs, dasatinib and quercetin, is known by the shorthand “D&Q” in the anti-aging community. After Kirkland showed that another drug, called fisetin, makes mice fed it live about 20% longer, self-experimenters didn’t delay in trying it. “The Mayo clinic protocol called for 180mg, but I decided to [hit] those zombie cells harder,” read a post I found on the Age Reversal Network, a bulletin board that’s a hotbed of longevity tips. The poster had decided to give himself nearly a double dose, 300 milligrams.

Just in case the longevity drugs don’t work, transhumanists like Clement have a backup plan. He wears a steel wristband directing anyone who finds his dead body to call the brain-freezing company Alcor, in Arizona, to preserve his brain for reanimation in the distant future.

Congregants at the Church of Perpetual Life in Hollywood, Florida.
Congregants at the Church of Perpetual Life in Hollywood, Florida.
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Transhumanist church

On a corner in Hollywood, Florida, amid low palms and dirt side streets, there is a cream-colored building called the Church of Perpetual Life. One Friday in June, I watched the vitamin and supplement entrepreneur William Faloon step out of a white Mercedes convertible with his wife. They posed for photos. She wore a minidress and white pumps; Faloon wore a suit, tie, and matching pocket square.

The motto of the church, created by Faloon and a business partner, Saul Kent, in 2013, is “Aging and death can be optional.” It bills itself as a transhumanist religion (one of its patron “saints” is the science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke). In practice it’s a gathering spot for hard-core life extensionists and the latest in a series of oddball projects Faloon has financed, including plans for a cryonics “timeship” in Texas with room for 10,000 frozen bodies.

“It’s hilarious,” says Steve Perry, a longevity enthusiast in New York. “He’s making a mockery of religion and maybe getting a tax break, too. If you are going to live another hundred years, you have to have a sense of humor.” (Faloon, who bought the building, pews and all, from a Baptist denomination, says it “is as legitimate a church as any other.” He adds, “We have an attorney who we pay a lot of money to.”)

“I was worried about it as soon as my mother told me I was going to die.”

William Faloon, cofounder of the Church of Perpetual Life
William Faloon, cofounder of the Church of Perpetual Life, also makes money from diet supplements, books, and a magazine.
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The investor Peter Thiel has remarked that most people cope with death through a combination of “acceptance and denial.” Add humor to the list. But Faloon is as serious as they come. “I was worried about it as soon as my mother told me I was going to die. As soon as I heard that, I said no way—I am not going to let that happen,” says Faloon. Now, at 64, he says he feels like “a duck in a shooting gallery,” given the risks of age-related disease.

Faloon makes his money from the Life Extension Buyers Club, which operates a storefront and clinic in Fort Lauderdale and a phone bank in Las Vegas. It sells large amounts of dietary supplements and publishes a magazine with detailed articles on how to stay alive. In 2017, the US Food and Drug Administration sent Life Extension a warning by next-day air, noting over 400 products on sale with “various” unproven health and life extension claims.

The day I visited the church, cars overflowed the parking lot into the side streets. Some visibly ill people reached the pews. There was friendly chitchat around a free buffet and talks by a fruitarian (a person who eats only fruit) and the manager of a vegan health retreat. Faloon took the podium in front of a large black flag emblazoned with a rising phoenix to present his “age-reversal strategy,” a staircase of interventions essentially identical to the four being tested by Clement. Added to these at the highest step was CRISPR, the gene--engineering technology. The prospect is that DNA modifications might one day prevent aging altogether.

Clement told me he hasn’t been to the church, since the other speakers are not “as scientifically rigorous as I would prefer.” But Faloon is one of his biggest supporters; he recently gave him $200,000 for a study of heart disease, listens to his advice, and shares it at his church. “James is probably the most efficient clinical researcher out there,” says Faloon. “He will do a study for $50,000 that a drug company will spend $10 million on. It’s easy to write him a check.”

Perpetual Life poster on donations
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In his talks, Faloon flashes recent news headlines and scientific articles about anti-aging medicine. “Age reversal, radically extended life—it’s happening, they are recognizing it!” he told an audience in Las Vegas last year. Never mind that some of these publications warn against anyone actually taking the drugs. To Faloon that’s more foot-dragging. “They are telling you to wait!” he said. “We jumped on this. As a result, we already know [it’s] not toxic, and incredibly beneficial.” It was a reference to Clement’s research.

During the service, Faloon told congregants how to get D&Q, the senolytic drug mixture, which needs a doctor’s prescription, giving them the name of a compounding pharmacy that could supply it. I called the pharmacist, Alan Zimmer, who told me it costs $225 a dose. “Demand for this has not been very strong. It’s something new, not very popular, although I know a lot of the anti-aging people are excited about it,” says Zimmer. “What the ramifications are, time will tell. Most of the research is from lab animals.”

This is a tricky problem, says Zimmer, who has seen longevity fads come and go. “The dilemma of anti-aging research is that to do real research in humans would require life spans, and if we had to wait for that, then the entire population on Earth would have passed on,” he says. “People here could never take advantage, because they would all be dead. So they look to research on animals, and apply it hypothetically.”

Later this year, at a conference of longevity enthusiasts called RAADfest, to be held in Las Vegas, Faloon plans to take the strategy one step further with what he has been calling the “Perpetual Clinical Trial.” It’s so named because it has no end date and “there is no upper limit as to how long we will attempt to enable study participants to live.” He is inviting 50 people to join for a small fee and get “aggressive” treatment using therapies from the age reversal ladder. Latecomers will have to pay much more to participate.

Of course, no one can say if the treatments will really extend your life. That remains a matter of faith. “As a member,” says a pitch for Faloon’s Life Extension Buyers Club, “you belong to an elite group of forward-thinking individuals who have a clear vision of the marvels that will exist in that wonderful world of the future.”