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Biotechnology

Can we find ways to live beyond 100? Millionaires are betting on it.

At a luxury resort in the Swiss Alps, wealthy investors and scientists are cooking up plans to push the limits of the human lifespan.

September 30, 2022
Aerial of Gstaad, Switzerland
Getty

This article is from The Checkup, MIT Technology Review's weekly biotech newsletter. To receive it in your inbox every Thursday, sign up here.

Hello, hallo, and bonjour!
 
This week’s Checkup is coming to you from Switzerland.

It’s still dark when I arrive at the Grand Bellevue hotel at 7 a.m., and it’s tipping with rain. But I’ve braved the elements to make it to an early “longevity workout.” It’s the first event scheduled at an aging conference I’m attending this week in Gstaad, an upmarket, picture-postcard Alpine town popular with celebrities. And if the 45-minute workout can potentially help me live longer, I reason it’s worth the early start.

I’m the first to arrive, so I take a peek around the hotel, where the conference will take place. It is ridiculously posh. The walk from reception to the gym takes me past a makeup and hairdressing area and a large children’s playroom complete with giant teddy bear and ball pit. It is nothing like the science conference venues I usually visit. But then, this isn’t a typical science conference.

The Longevity Investors Conference brings academic scientists and biotech companies together with deep-pocketed investors. We’re talking millionaires and billionaires. So it’s only fitting that it’s taking place in such a swish setting.

It’s hard to tell which of my 10 fellow exercisers are scientists or investors—we’re all sweating during the surprisingly intense workout. But I recognize one founder of a biotech company developing a gene therapy to slow the aging process. And a cofounder of an organization that describes itself as a “longevity company builder.” One well-known academic sticks his head into the room, assesses our sweaty faces, and promptly retreats.

Over the next couple of days, these researchers, entrepreneurs, and investors will make the case for longevity science and anti-aging strategies. There are plenty of promising approaches out there. Some people believe that a diabetes drug called metformin could help us live longer. Others are developing treatments that attempt to mimic the genomes of people who live healthy lives beyond the age of 100. And there’s a whole range of supplements that are purported to slow or reverse aging.

It can be difficult to make head or tail of some of the claims, partly because we don’t have a good way to tell if a treatment really has slowed or reversed aging in a person. Much of the solid evidence we have so far comes from mice—we have well-established ways to extend the lifespan of rodents and protect them from a slew of age-related diseases.

But to test the same treatments in people, we’d need to run clinical trials for decades, which would be very difficult and extremely expensive. So the hunt is on for chemical clues in the blood or cells that might reveal how quickly a person is aging. Quite a few “aging clocks,” which purport to give a person’s biological age rather than their chronological age, have been developed. But none are reliable enough to test anti-aging drugs—yet. 

As I leave to head back to my own slightly less posh but still beautiful hotel, I’m handed a gift bag. It’s loaded up with anti-aging supplements, a box with a note saying it contains an AI longevity assistant, and even a regenerative toothpaste. At first glance, I have absolutely no idea if any of them are based on solid science. They might be nothing more than placebos.

Ultimately, of all the supplements, drugs and various treatments being promoted here, the workout is the one that’s most likely to work, judging from the evidence we have so far. It’s obvious, but regular exercise is key to gaining healthy years of life. Workouts designed to strengthen our muscles seem to be particularly beneficial for keeping us healthy, especially in later life. They can even help keep our brains young.
 
I’ll be penning a proper write up of the conference when I’m back home, so if your curiosity has been piqued, keep an eye out for that next week! In the meantime, here’s some related reading:

  • I wrote about what aging clocks can and can’t tell us about our biological age earlier this year.
  • Anti-aging drugs are being tested as a way to treat covid. The idea is that, by rejuvenating the immune system, we might be able to protect vulnerable older people from severe disease.
  • Longevity scientists are working to extend the lifespan of pet dogs. There’ll be benefits for the animals and their owners, but the eventual goal is to extend human lifespan, as I wrote in August.
  • The Saudi royal family could become one of the most significant investors in anti-aging research, according to this piece by my colleague Antonio Regalado. The family’s Hevolution Foundation plans to spend a billion dollars a year on understanding how aging works, and how to extend healthy lifespan.
  • While we’re on the subject of funding, most of the investment in the field has been poured into Altos Labs—a company focusing on ways to tackle aging by reprogramming cells to a more youthful state. The company is said to have received financial backing from some of the wealthiest people in the world, including Jeff Bezos and Yuri Milner, Antonio explains.

From around the web

An experimental Alzheimer’s drug appears to slow cognitive decline. It’s huge news, given the decades of failed attempts to treat the disease. But the full details of the study have not yet been published, and it is difficult to know how much of an impact the drug might have on the lives of people with the disease. (STAT)

Bionic pancreases could successfully treat type 1 diabetes, according to the results of a clinical trial. The credit card-sized device, worn on the abdomen, can constantly monitor a person’s blood sugar levels, and deliver insulin when needed. (MIT Technology Review)

We’re headed for a dementia epidemic in US prisons. There’s a growing number of older inmates, and the US penal system doesn’t have the resources to look after them. (Scientific American)

Unvaccinated people are 14 times more likely to develop monkeypox disease than those who receive the Jynneos vaccine are, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the organization doesn’t yet know how the vaccine affects the severity of disease in those who do become unwell, or if there is any difference in protection for people who are given fractional doses. (The New York Times $)

Don’t call them minibrains! In last week’s Checkup, I covered organoids—tiny clumps of cells meant to mimic full-grown organs. They’ve mainly been used for research, but we’ve started to implant them into animals to treat disease, and humans are next. Arguably the best-known organoids are those made from brain cells, which have been referred to as minibrains. A group of leading scientists in the field say this wrongly implies that the cells are capable of complex mental functions, like the ability to think or feel pain. They ask that we use the less-catchy but more accurate term “neural organoid” instead. (Nature)

That's it for this week. Thanks for reading!

—Jess

Deep Dive

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Inside the billion-dollar meeting for the mega-rich who want to live forever

Hope, hype, and self-experimentation collided at an exclusive conference for ultra-rich investors who want to extend their lives past 100. I went along for the ride.

The debate over whether aging is a disease rages on

In its latest catalogue of health conditions, the World Health Organization almost equated old age with disease. Then it backed off.

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