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Biotechnology

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.

November 16, 2022
Longevity Prize winner celebrates with raised arms as confetti falls and she receives an oversized check
Longevity Investors Conference

“Who wants to live forever?” The immortal words of Freddie Mercury blast from the speakers as blue lights swivel around the room and a smoky mist floats up from the stage in front of me. If the audience is anything to go by, the answer to his question is: the mega rich.

I’d come to Gstaad, a swanky ski-resort town in the Swiss Alps, to attend the first in-person Longevity Investors Conference. Over the two-day event, scientists and biotech founders made the case for various approaches to prolonging the number of years we might spend in good health. And the majority of them were trying to win over deep-pocketed investors.

There were 150 people at this meeting, and its organizers told me that 120 of them were investors with millions or even billions of dollars at their disposal—and at least a million dollars ready to pump into a longevity project. Plenty of would-be attendees were denied a $4,500 ticket because they didn’t meet this criterion, an event co-organizer tells me.

The conference was unlike any academic meeting I’ve ever attended. The location was stunning. The food was exquisite. The champagne came with a backstory. Not only was the meeting held at one of the poshest hotels in one of the richest countries in the world, it was also a hotbed of hype and self-experimentation.

I’d never before seen a scientist work up a sweat during a “longevity workout” before a presentation, nor conference attendees dropping to do pushups in between sessions. Many attendees were taking bags of pills on a daily basis—all in the hope of extending their years of good health. As the hotel’s co-owner put it at the start of the conference: “Here’s to drinking wine well into our hundreds!”

The question is whether that’s anything more than a toast from a hotelier catering to the rich. As the field attempts to define itself as scientifically sound, plenty of “anti-aging treatments” based on little-to-no human evidence continue to enter the market. Can billions of investor money—some of it from ethically dubious sources—offer a concrete path to evidence-based life extension for all?

Living for longer

Sitting at a beautifully decorated dinner table and perusing my “rejuvenation dinner” menu—the main dish is a choice between local veal steak and a kind of mushroom pie—I’m made aware of a hubbub over at the neighboring table. As I stand to take a peek, I see a group of men huddled over what looks like a napkin. One of them has cut his hand and is squeezing out drops of blood.

He’s probably doing some kind of test to estimate his biological age, says Martin Borch Jensen, chief science officer at Gordian Biotechnology, who is sitting beside me. It’s not typical dinner behavior, especially at an establishment this posh, but barely anyone bats an eyelid. Self-testing and experimentation is pretty standard among the group, even when it’s happening in the middle of dinner at a fancy hotel restaurant. 

Over the last couple of decades, scientists have found plenty of ways to reliably extend the life spans of yeast, worms, and even mice and some other animals in the lab. A drug called rapamycin, originally used to suppress the immune systems of people undergoing organ transplants, can extend the life spans of lab mice by around 25%, for example. A treatment that clears out aged, worn-out cells has the same effect. Even injecting old mice with the blood of human teenagers seems to rejuvenate them.

These approaches don’t just delay death in the rodents. They prolong good health and help the animals stave off diseases associated with old age. “The idea is that aging biology is this lever that allows us to dial back on multiple diseases … and that would be much better than whack-a-mole medicine,” says Borch Jensen, whose company focuses on therapeutics for diseases of aging.

Ask anyone in the field what they do to stay young, and you’ll typically be given a fairly lengthy list that could include anything from cold-water baths and high-intensity exercise to prescription-only drugs or a combination of supplements.

Some are experimenting with inhaling low-oxygen air. I was invited to try out one of these devices at the conference, which happened to be positioned in the middle of the room used for networking and drinks receptions. It felt a bit strange walking, champagne glass in hand, around people lying down with masks on their faces. “It looked like some kind of spaceship,“ says Borch Jensen.

Conference co-organizer Tobias Reichmuth has his own list. Reichmuth cofounded Maximon—an organization that supports longevity biotech companies—with his friend and longtime collaborator Marc Bernegger in 2020.

Reichmuth’s company is investing 100 million Swiss francs (around $106 million) over the next four and a half years. Reichmuth has a personal goal of living to the age of 120. He’s lost a lot of weight since 2016, he says. He eats a largely plant-based diet, gets plenty of exercise, and practices intermittent fasting. I saw Reichmuth at the exhausting morning longevity workout, which left me with jelly legs. He smiled and waved as he zipped past me on his morning run while I hobbled back to my hotel.

He also takes supplements. Reichmuth’s daily regimen includes NMN, a supplement that is meant to increase levels of NAD+, which helps provide cells with energy. He also takes what he describes as a “booster” supplement. The booster contains resveratrol, a chemical found in berries, and, famously, red wine that has long been touted for its anti-aging properties. Both compounds are sold as longevity-boosting supplements, but there is no conclusive evidence that either help humans live longer.

Supplements aren’t regulated in the same way as medicines. They don’t have to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration in the US, for example. While companies can’t claim that supplements can treat or cure diseases, they can sell supplements without even notifying the FDA.  

All conference attendees were handed a gift bag with at least two containers of supplements. In mine, I found 60 days’ worth of “purity” supplements and a small tub of the resveratrol-containing booster supplement.

Nir Barzilai, director of the Institute for Aging Research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, was one of the scientists in attendance. He finds it concerning. In the past, he says, he took the line that the sale of most supplements was “good for the economy” and not much else—essentially a harmless waste of money. But today, plenty of companies are leaning on science to develop supplements designed to target biological functions that seem to be linked to aging.

We don’t know exactly what these supplements are doing. None have been through rigorous clinical trials. “You don’t know how they are interacting with each other … I’m worried that we don’t know what they are doing.” says Barzilai. 

Evelyne Bischof of the Shanghai University of Medicine, who was also at the meeting, shares some of the same concerns. Bischof is trained as a medical doctor; after specializing in oncology and internal medicine, she turned her attention to longevity medicine. Today, she offers personalized treatments that she hopes will extend the health span of her patients in the US and China.

She has treated people who have become ill after taking longevity supplements. “They came to me almost in kidney failure in their 30s, because they jumped on a very high dose of supplements and it was just not good for them,” she says. Other people found that their biological age—according to the clocks—went up after taking supplements. “Even though these are supplements, they might cause harm,” Bischof says. “It’s not advisable to [take supplements] as a self-experiment.”

Even if a supplement does make a person feel better, those effects might vary over time, Bischof adds. Our bodies might react differently depending on whether it’s day or night, summer or winter, or even as we age.

That being said, Bischof herself is self-experimenting with potential longevity treatments. “It made sense for me,” she says. So is Barzilai. He says he is doing so “as a scientist”—he’ll have blood tests taken before and after trying anything new, he says. “I want to maximize my health, so I’m experimenting with some things that I don’t care to talk about,” he says. “And by the way, I’m doing it with a doctor.”

The longevity doctor will see you now

Bischof is one of a small but unknown number of physicians specializing in longevity medicine. Her patients range in age. She says she sees fit people in their 40s who are looking to “optimize their performance”—be that physical or cognitive performance—as well as older individuals who have more health concerns. Bischof performs a host of tests on her patients, and says she takes a detailed look at their health records, blood results, physiological test scores, body scans, and even genetic tests to get an idea of their overall health.

She also relies on the use of biological clocks—tests that measure a biological trait and use it to estimate a person’s biological age, or how close they are to death, rather than their chronological age. Bischof then attempts to make sense of all of the data and turn it into some kind of recommendation for each patient, which might include lifestyle changes, supplements, or medication.

It isn’t a case of typing all the data into some computer program that spits out a result, says Bischof. “There is no proper algorithm yet that will tell me … what to do with the patient,” she says. “It’s still something that is happening in my head.”

Should longevity medicine become the evidence-based clinical practice Bischof hopes for, the question of who will be able to afford it looms large. Bischof is trying to develop longevity departments in public hospitals. She is about to open such a clinic at a hospital in Shanghai, she says. But longevity appears to be the realm of the super-wealthy for now. 

The cost of living

At least that appears to be the case when it comes to investment. There were no small research charities in attendance at the lavish Swiss conference. “Our team looks at your LinkedIn profile and credentials, and decides whether this is a person who can contribute to the conference or not,” says Reichmuth. “We’re talking about people who can decide on investments north of a million dollars.”

Speakers included billionaire 44-year-old Christian Angermayer, who said he needed to stay alive for another 50 years in order to benefit from future longevity treatments.

Angermayer said that the super-rich eventually reach a point where having more money doesn’t improve their lives very much. “If you buy a yacht, you can always get a bigger yacht; if you buy a plane, you can always get a bigger plane,” he told the conference. “But the [extent to which] your life is changing with more money is actually very minimal.” It makes more sense to direct funds to being healthier and living longer, he said.

Such deep-pocketed individuals and groups are looking to be the biggest investors in longevity research. Most of the $4.4 billion invested over the last five years into understanding whether or not reprogramming our cells might help us live longer has gone into Altos Labs, a biotech company whose funders are thought to include Jeff Bezos and Yuri Milner.

Still, many longevity researchers are scrambling for funding. 

Barzilai for one has struggled for years to get public funding for his metformin clinical trial. People who take metformin, a widely used drug for diabetes, appear to be less likely to develop age-related diseases than even non-diabetics, but we don’t yet know if the drug can reliably keep us in good health. Barzilai has only recently found the money to cover one third of his expenses. 

But that $9 million is coming from Hevolution. The foundation, launched in 2021, has a reported annual budget of $1 billion, which will be spent as grants to and investments in research organizations and biotech companies seeking to understand longevity and extend human health span.

The billion dollars “comes from a variety of donors, including the government of Saudi Arabia,” foundation CEO Mehmood Khan said in a prepared statement. That same government oversees mass executions of its own citizens, corporal punishment and torture, and other violations of human rights. It was in the Saudi consulate in Turkey that US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered and dismembered.

It was only after the conference had ended that I noticed that Mortimer Sackler was listed as an attendee. Sackler is one of the seven children of the elder Mortimer Sackler, the former chief executive of Purdue Pharma, who died in 2010 at the age of 93. Both the company and family members were accused of fueling the US opioid crisis and for their role in the prescription of addictive pain-relief medication that was unsafe and unnecessary. The company and family have paid billions of dollars in legal settlements.

Would scientists seeking to extend human health feel comfortable accepting funding from sources like these? I was surprised to find that the answer was almost a resounding “yes,” at least among the people I asked.

Barzilai did say he would draw the line at accepting funds from the Sackler family, but said that, as far as he’s concerned, the Saudi money is from oil and investments. “My principle is that as long as it helps me do my job … then I would do it,” he says. “But if a Sackler wanted to meet with me, I wouldn’t go.”

But he isn’t the only one who has accepted funding from Hevolution. Borch Jensen’s organization is another recipient. And, as long as the money is going toward extending healthy longevity, Bischof said she didn’t mind where it came from. “I think whoever tries to support healthy longevity … should not be prevented [from doing so],” she says.

The hope and the hype

A sense of hope and optimism was palpable at the Gstaad meeting. I got the impression that most people believed that, with enough funding, positive scientific results were just a few years away. And with that, we’d be on the road to reliably extending human health span.

The presenters were a mix of longtime academics, biotech startups, and people selling the idea of longevity as a high-end luxury good for those who frequent spas and lavish retreats. Barzilai has been studying the biology of aging for decades, and is well-respected among his peers. But I also met a young man who told me that breathing low-oxygen air could benefit multiple aspects of my health—and who then commented that he “didn’t believe” in covid vaccines.

A 67-year-old man took to the stage to tell us that, since he’d been taking his own supplement, his biological age had reversed, and he was now biologically only 49 years old. He pointed at his gray hair and unconvincingly claimed it was turning brown. The scientist next to me chuckled under his breath.

How is an investor—or anyone else, for that matter—meant to make sense of all these claims? Ask an academic, and they’ll tell you that the answer is education—the more people know about the biology of aging and how clinical trials work, the better placed they are to work out how much faith to put in any claim.  

Many agree that it’s the wild claims made by some—claims that we could live to be a thousand years old, or avoid death entirely—that have helped bring attention and investment to the field. But they have also tarnished its reputation as a scientific discipline. 

Barzilai and his colleagues avoid the term “anti-aging” and opt instead for geroscience. “We want to be responsible, and we want to come from science,” he says. But the day after he gave his presentation, transhumanist José Luis Cordeiro told us he wanted to “transcend biology,” travel to Mars, and massively extend human life span. Even the man sharing the stage with him, who has taken out a life insurance policy to fund his own cryopreservation, rolled his eyes.

“Longevity does not mean live forever,” says Bischof, who emphasizes that she wants to extend the health span of her patients. “I have nothing against those that want to live forever … I think we just need to have a clear definition in medicine of what we are doing.”

Borch Jensen says that while there’s more hype in biotech than academia, he thinks that any hype tends to be short-lived. “If you’re selling hot air, you can’t get away with doing that for very long,” he says.

I’ve been writing about the science of aging for over a decade myself, and I’m not sure I fully agree with him. I’ve seen shoddy science get plenty of press attention. I’ve seen smart scientists fall prey to flimsy claims about health-extending supplements. But I’ve also seen some fascinating and tantalizing research—enough to want to follow it through and find out if these approaches really will be as beneficial for people as they are for lab animals.

Borch Jensen says he gave friends the freebie supplements he got at the conference—although he also got a pot of “longevity honey” in his gift bag. But I haven’t felt comfortable giving mine away, just because I don’t really know anything about them. I haven’t taken any, either.

It is undoubtedly an exciting time for longevity science and medicine. I hope I live long enough to see some positive results.

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