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Biotechnology and health

Longevity enthusiasts want to create their own independent state. They’re eyeing Rhode Island.

Zuzalu, a pop-up city in Montenegro has provided a temporary home for people who plan to set up a new jurisdiction to encourage biohacking and fast-track drugs that slow or reverse aging.

A high-angle drone shot of Lustica bay resort with forested mountains in the background
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It’s a Friday morning in early May, and I’ve woken up to the sound of waves crashing against the rocks in a small bay on the coast of the Adriatic. 

The sky is completely gray, and there are continual rumbles of thunder. The weather has been bad since I arrived in Montenegro. It was too stormy for the pilot to land the plane I was traveling on, and we ended up touching down in neighboring Croatia.

I’m here for a gathering of longevity enthusiasts, people interested in extending human life through various biotechnology approaches. One attendee, with whom I ended up sharing a cross-border taxi ride, told me half of his luggage was “supplements and powders.” Most attendees seem to be wearing “longevity” stickers. Everyone is super friendly, and the sense of optimism is palpable. Everyone I speak to is confident we’ll be able to find a way to slow or reverse aging. And they have a bold plan to speed up progress.

Welcome to Zuzalu

Humans have been searching for the fountain of youth for thousands of years. But progress has been slow, to say the least. Though plenty of companies are working on ways to slow or reverse the process, it’s incredibly difficult and expensive to run a study to find out whether a treatment has helped people live longer. And health agencies like the World Health Organization don’t even consider aging to be a disease in the first place

Now a community of people is working on an alternative setup, including perhaps even establishing an independent state. Aging is “morally bad,” they argue, and it’s a problem that needs to be solved. They see existing regulations as roadblocks to progress and call for a different approach. Less red tape allows for more innovation, they say. People should be encouraged to self-experiment with unproven treatments if they wish. And companies shouldn’t be held back by national laws that limit how they develop and test drugs. 

Around 780 such people gathered at this “pop-up city” in Montenegro to work out how they might create such a state—a place where like-minded innovators can work together in an all-new jurisdiction that gives them free rein to self-experiment with unproven drugs. Some attendees are just visitors, passing through. But the dedicated among them have been living here for almost two months. Welcome to Zuzalu.

I heard about Zuzalu through a contact who invests in longevity technologies. The gathering, held at a luxury resort in Tivat, Montenegro, runs until the end of May. Each week has a different theme, ranging from synthetic biology to artificial intelligence, although the overarching focus is on longevity, cryptocurrencies, and the idea of creating novel jurisdictions.

“Zuzalu is not just a conference,” Laurence Ion, one of the core organizers, told an audience at the event. “It’s an experiment in co-living and exploring what the physical presence of an online tribe would look like.” The concept came from the mind of Vitalik Buterin, the inventor of the cryptocurrency Ethereum, although the organizers stress that it was a collaborative effort. 

The word Zuzalu doesn’t mean anything, says co-organizer Janine Leger, who works at Gitcoin, a blockchain platform. The name was generated using ChatGPT, using multiple prompts. The event’s logo was also AI generated. Buterin “spent hours on that one,” Leger says.

Over a cup of tea, Leger and Ion told me that they wanted as little hierarchy as possible. Members of the core team behind the event were each given 10 invitations, and those invitees were also given their own set of invitations. Leger and Ion won’t tell me who made the invite list, but other attendees gave me the names of celebrities, politicians, and billionaires who were rumored to have dropped in.

A temporary home

The resort itself feels more like a very small town on part of the steep, hilly coastline. There’s a fancy hotel, but there are also hundreds of luxury apartments, where many of Zuzalu’s residents  made a temporary home. Over the two months, the organizers planned several themed conferences. But residents have been encouraged to set up their own events too. 

And there are plenty of social activities, including a daily cold plunge in the sea and community breakfasts. Other events included a “social VR baptism + beat saber party,” a truth-or-dare night, and meditation sessions. I was disappointed to learn that I’d missed out on the Pony Art Garden Party. 

I arrived just in time for the launch of Zuzalu’s longevity biotech conference—a three-day event that brought together people from universities, startups, and longevity clinics around the world. We heard from startups working on ways to keep people healthier for longer, and ultimately to extend our life spans. 

But one of the core goals of attendees is to develop what they call a network state. “It’s a highly aligned online community with the capacity for collective action,” Max Unfried, a PhD student at the National University of Singapore who hopes to find a cure for aging, told the crowd during a panel session. “On top of that, it crowdfunds territory around the world and aims to gain diplomatic recognition as a state.”

This particular network state would be dedicated to longevity, and to fast-tracking technologies that might possibly add more healthy years to our lives. Life is good, and death is morally bad, said Nathan Cheng, who leads the Longevity Biotech Fellowship, an online community for people working in the field. “We have this moral imperative to do something about death, about aging,” he said. “This is the moral philosophy that we believe in, that guides most of the actions of our lives. We’re trying to get more people to rally around it.”

A longevity state

Cheng made the case for what he calls a longevity state: “a state that prioritizes doing something about aging.” The state could encourage biotech companies to set up bases there by offering tax perks, supporting biohacking, and loosening regulations on clinical trials, panel members said. It should be up to individuals to decide how much risk they are willing to accept—doctors shouldn’t have the final say on whether a person is able to access an experimental treatment.

The plan is modeled on the Free State Project, a movement launched just over 20 years ago with the goal of encouraging 20,000 libertarians to move to New Hampshire. The idea is that once enough people with a particular ideology move to a region, their votes can begin to alter regional policies and state laws. (It’s worth noting that the outcome of the New Hampshire project has not been entirely rosy, and there were reports of an increase in violent crime and bear attacks in the town at the project’s center.)

There are no firm plans for a longevity state just yet, and Zuzalu’s organizers stress that they want any decisions to be made collaboratively. The new state could find a home in a special economic zone, or even on the high seas. But the idea is appealing to biotech companies working on treatments that target aging.

Plenty of companies are trying to develop drugs that target the aging process, whether by rejuvenating cells or clearing away aged ones, for example. For those companies, “the number-one issue at the moment is that there is no regulatory path to market,” says Zuzalu attendee Josef Christensen, chief business development officer at the stem-cell company StemMedical.

Part of the issue is that aging itself is not recognized as a disease that needs to be treated. This makes it difficult to approve a trial for an aging treatment, and unlikely that a longevity drug could be medically approved for that purpose. Even if aging were a disease, it would be incredibly difficult and expensive to show that a treatment slowed or reversed it. Trial participants would have to be monitored for decades. The alternative would be to use biomarkers that indicate how biologically old a person is, or to use “aging clocks.” In theory, instead of waiting for someone to die of old age, you could take a spit or blood sample and estimate the person’s rate of aging from certain DNA markers. But we don’t yet have truly reliable biomarkers or aging clocks.

As a result, in the current regulatory environment a potential longevity drug might be shown to extend the life span of mice but still be years away from human trials. And given how long those trials could take, who knows when, if ever, such a drug might become available to consumers outside of clinical trials. “You cannot get to market with an anti-aging drug,” says Christensen. “The hypothesis is that if we have a longevity state, we could create that pathway.”

Human guinea pigs

One of the key features of this proposed state is that it would allow, and possibly encourage, self-experimentation and biohacking. That means enabling people to get their hands on experimental drugs that have not yet been proved to be safe or effective.

Christensen supports the idea. “I’m sufficiently ultra-liberal … who am I to prevent you from trying a compound?” he says. “We’re all adults, and if you understand what you’re doing and understand the risk, then do it.”

Regulators are “too restrictive about validating efficacy,” says Yuri Deigin, cofounder and director of Youth Bio, a biotech company trying to develop rejuvenating gene therapies. “I’m all for validating the safety of novel therapies,” he says. But he thinks that the bar is too high when it comes to proving how well a drug works—and that this is holding back progress. “I think we as a field could benefit [from allowing] people to try novel therapies earlier,” he says.

Oliver Colville, a speaker at Zuzalu who works at Apeiron, an organization that invests in biotech and technology companies, likes the sound of a state in which self-experimenting inhabitants have their health tracked. “If you had a longevity state where one of the premises was ... offering yourself up as a guinea pig for monitoring,” he says, “I think that could go a long way to understanding some of the key things [about healthy aging].”

But while investors, libertarians, and some biotech companies support the idea, not everyone is keen on stripping away regulations. There’s a good chance that doing so could end up hampering progress in the field, says Patricia Zettler, a legal scholar at Ohio State University.

“[Food and Drug Administration] requirements force individuals or companies to conduct rigorous scientific research to demonstrate that the claims they’re making are, in fact, supported by scientific evidence,” she says. Without those, we’d end up in a world where companies can make up any old claims about their products, she warns. We wouldn’t know which would work, and people could lose trust in the field more generally.

“Should companies be able to distribute products without evidence that their products work for medical uses?” she says. “My answer is no.” At any rate, the problems faced by those developing longevity drugs go way beyond regulation, she says: “These are just difficult scientific and medical problems.”

Christensen acknowledges other potential problems with lifting regulations. “If you lower the bar [of evidence], the logical conclusion is that you’ll see more adverse events … more potential deaths from these things,” he says. He also points out that even if a drug did go through some kind of fast-tracked trial in a longevity state, it might not be accepted by other jurisdictions—including the major worldwide players like Europe and the federal government of the US.

A home in Rhode Island?

Exactly where a longevity state might be developed is currently being worked out. The backers, Ion suggests, could take their lead from the founders of Próspera—a crypto city set up in a special economic zone in Honduras, designed to offer companies a low-tax environment with “innovation-friendly” regulations. Zuzalu’s organizers have been in talks with politicians in Montenegro, where they are exploring the possibility of creating a similar long-term home for pro-longevity devotees. 

“Basically what we’re trying to do is get people to take proactive political action, which could include relocation to, potentially, certain states and jurisdictions around the world, so you can vote and transform the policies of the state to benefit all the people within that state,” Cheng said. 

He also raised the possibility of setting up a longevity state in the US, since the country is home to plenty of longevity supporters and biotech companies that might not be willing to move internationally. Specifically, he has his sights set on Rhode Island. It’s close to Boston, a well-established biotech hub. And it has a small population. If enough people who believed in his moral philosophy moved there, they could have enough voting power to influence mayoral and state elections, he said. “Five to ten thousand people—that’s all we need,” he told the attendees.

But the structure of the US government might complicate the plan. “No state can eliminate federal law,” says Zettler. “It’s not as though Rhode Island can exempt individuals … from the requirements of the FDA.” That’s one reason why other attendees suggested the new state be located somewhere in Latin America, such as Costa Rica. The week after I left, Montenegro’s prime minister was due to arrive at Zuzalu. Some planned to discuss the idea of a longevity state there, during “Montenegro Day.”

Whatever the outcome of Zuzalu, it was certainly a fascinating event that has brought together a diverse group of people to bat about some bold ideas. During my brief visit, I heard people propose everything from longevity fashion brands to cryonics.

Deigin told me that for him, a highlight was “living among people who are your tribe.” Another attendee, who had already been there for six weeks when I spoke to him, likened Zuzalu to a religion. The organizers hope to plan other, similar gatherings in the future. Whether any result in a new state for life-extending drugs, we’ll have to wait and see.

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