Business Today

Quest For Immortality

The super rich are pumping enormous amounts of money into research that will extend life - and keep death at bay for a long, long time...
twitter-logoE Kumar Sharma | Print Edition: October 20, 2019
Quest For Immortality
Tech titans of the 21st century are heavily investing in enterprises focussed on finding anti-ageing solutions and physical immortality - Illustration by Ajay Thakuri

In The Book of Immortality, Canadian author and musician Adam Leith Gollner narrates that Oracle Founder, Larry Ellison, "has vowed to defeat mortality". He then goes on to quote Ellison's biographer, Mark Wilson, "Part of Larry... is saying if he's smart enough, he should be able to beat (death). Death is just another kind of corporate opponent that he can outfox." In Ellison's own words, "Death has never made any sense to me. How can a person be there and then just vanish, just not be there? Clearly the reason they're not there is they're off doing something else... Death makes me very angry."

This feeling of anger and frustration is not new. The super rich have chased immortality for millenniums as it is one thing that wealth cannot buy. Defying old age and death has fascinated the human race from the days of the Puranas. One could never forget the legend of King Yayati whose son Puru gave him the gift of youth for a thousand years. In ancient Egypt, the bodies of the royalty were preserved for an equally enjoyable afterlife. In medieval Europe, alchemists swindled aristocrats by assuring eternal life. Even now, the ultra-rich, with all their superyachts, supercars, private jets, personal trainers and celebrity chefs, are heavily investing in enterprises focussed on finding physical immortality. The hunt for amrita will always be arduous.

Tech titans of the 21st century think otherwise. For instance, Ellison Medical Foundation gives out more than $40 million a year for longevity and anti-ageing research, according to Gollner. The amount is almost seven times more than the US venture capitalist Paul Glenn's average contribution to this cause. Glenn supports gerontology research across Ivy League institutions - Harvard, Princeton, MIT and Stanford. He has also donated to Virginia-based not-for-profit Methuselah Foundation. Set up by David Gobel and Dr Aubrey de Grey in 2001, the biomedical charity was named after Methuselah, the grandfather of Noah, whose life span was said to be 969 years. Its aim: Making 90 the new 50 by 2030.

The list of billionaire age-warriors is quite long. Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, PayPal Co-founder and Facebook board member Peter Thiel, Amazon Founder Jeff Bezos and Google Co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page have all declared war on death by throwing millions at immortality research and anti-ageing solutions. According to an article published in The Guardian in February, Brin and Page are betting big on Calico, a health venture that apparently aims to 'solve death'. On the other hand, Bezos and Thiel have backed Unity Biotechnology that hopes to combat the effects of ageing.

The Chase

Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page have pumped millions into healthcare venture Calico, focussed on tackling ageing.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and PayPal Co-founder and Facebook board member Peter Thiel are backing Unity Biotechnology, a company developing medicines which may halt, slow or reverse age-associated diseases and extend healthy life span.

As always, Thiel has quite a colourful record in this space. He has not only invested heavily in SENS Research Foundation but also bankrolled a host of biotech start-ups trying to cure critical health problems - from Alzheimer's to tumour to viral diseases. Understandably, nothing could have intrigued the immortality-obsessed venture capitalist more. But when genomics start-up Halcyon Molecular (funded by Thiel, Musk and others) shut shop, it became clear that a 'simple genetic cleansing' would not wipe off all diseases, nor could a person expect to live for "millions, billions, hundreds of billions of years". The caveat: Many of these investments are doing well and companies are growing. Given that the global anti-ageing market is estimated to grow at a CAGR of 5.3 per cent and reach $55.03 billion by 2023, it is evident that immortality financiers are not just angry or whimsical. They are putting the money where the mouth is.

Elon Musk seems to be on a different plane. In a recent interview, he expressed his desire for healthy ageing, but he has already set up a company called Neuralink to develop brain-computer interfaces. In a paper posted on the Neuralink website, Musk wrote that "brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) hold promise for the restoration of sensory and motor function and the treatment of neurological disorders, but clinical BMIs have not yet been widely adopted." He goes on to talk about Neuralink's first steps towards a scalable, high-bandwidth BMI system, once again aimed at critical care that may positively impact old-age syndromes. Imagine mind-controlling a gadget to get things done when you have Parkinson's.

Calico, on the other hand, is an R&D company, tackling ageing. On September 18, 2013, Google announced the setting up of Calico because, as Google CEO Larry Page said, "Illness and ageing affect all our families. With some longer-term moonshot thinking around healthcare and biotechnology, I believe we can improve millions of lives." Interestingly, Calico announced that it was teaming up with the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, one of the biggest independent research organisations. The latter created waves when it used genetic mutations to increase the lifespan of earthworms to the human equivalent of 400-500 years.

Not that the likes of Brin and Page should worry too much about life extension. The richest 1 per cent, especially in the US, has access to the best of everything - be it healthcare, food, fitness and other professional services which can help lengthen life - and the result is showing. According to a 2016 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the richest 1 per cent American women (by income) live a decade longer than the 1 per cent at the bottom of the pyramid. For men, this gap could be nearly 15 years. Even then, living up to 100 and beyond can be a pricey proposition if one is thinking of a complete cellular cleansing the Unity way or something as controversial and weird as parabiosis or transformation of blood plasma from the young to the old.

What It Involves

Senolytics, an evolving branch of anti-ageing medicine where the focus is on developing a class of drugs that can destroy ageing (senescent, in medical jargon) cells in the body.

Repurposing existing drugs and developing new ones which could better target cells, which are largely responsible for age-related degeneration and diseases.

Exploring blood transfusion and its potential in dealing with ageing.

Brain and body preservation by niche entities offering cryonic services.

Elon Musk has invested in brain-machine interface and set up a company called Neuralink to pursue research.Unity is attacking the fundamental biology of ageing by developing medicines which will slow down, halt and reverse age-related diseases. What's more, it could soon introduce drugs which will target and kill senescent cells, which are largely responsible for age-related diseases. According to Baxter Consulting Group, which specialises in population ageing, among other things, Unity has opened a new frontier. The company had reportedly raised $116 million in Series B from Thiel's Founders Fund, Jeff Bezos's venture fund Bezos Expeditions, Mayo Clinic Ventures, Venrock and ARCH Venture Partners. Going by what it is doing, the enthusiasm might be well warranted. Early trials seem promising, and Unity is certainly going after the big game.

Baxter also mentions other companies on the anti-ageing warpath. There is San Diego-based Human Longevity, founded by famed biologist John Craig Venter and veteran entrepreneur Peter Diamandis. It has raised $300 million to build the most comprehensive database on human genotypes and phenotypes, and the data will be subjected to machine learning for developing anti-ageing therapies.

Another key channel is the repurposing of older and affordable drugs. Take metformin, for example, the first line of treatment for Type 2 diabetes. As per researchers, this inexpensive generic drug (it costs about a rupee per tablet in India) could promote longevity. The same goes for rapamycin, an immunosuppressant, and tanespimycin, used in cancer care. Both of them may have the potential to slow down cellular ageing.

Developing and repurposing drugs may take a long time. So, immortality-seekers are trying another option to cheat death, if that is at all possible. Preserve the brain, the head or the entire body after 'certified' death by deep-freezing it, in the hope that science will evolve and find a way to resuscitate the person at some point in future. And yes, one's pet can also be frozen in the same way to keep company. Cryonics or freezing of bodies after death (for preservation) has been here for more than five decades, and around 350 people worldwide have consented to go through it. But the unorthodox and unregulated field remains unproven in spite of a growing community. The cost is prohibitive, too, varying between Euro 61,000 and Euro 152,000, as per media reports. Arizona-based Alcor Life Extension Foundation is the most well-known and longest-operating cryonics facility. And one of its most famous cryopreserved occupants is baseball legend Ted Williams. Then there are Suspended Animation, Inc., Osiris Cryonics and Russian cryonics firm KrioRus. The latter's website lists all 70 people it has cryopreserved since 2003.

Will Cryonics work as expected? The answer is no, in the short term. Science has not found cures for all terminal diseases, a key reason why many of the cryopreserved wanted to 'wait it out' until they get a new lease of life. Nor have we found a way to reanimate the dead. Experts, too, remain mostly sceptical. "Reanimation is an abjectly false hope that is beyond the promise of technology and is certainly impossible with the frozen, dead tissue offered by the 'cryonics' industry," McGill University neuroscientist Michael Hendricks wrote in MIT Technology Review.

The India Story

Kris Gopalakrishnan, Infosys Co-founder

In a country where 0.8 physicians are available per 1,000 people (WHO data), immortality research is bound to take a backseat. However, the corporate creme de la creme in India is not worse off than their global counterparts. As per our research on family offices in July 2018, the estimated number of ultra-high net worth individuals in the country was more than 2,000, each with at least $50 million (Rs 300 crore) net wealth. It means they are sitting on Rs 7-10 lakh crore. But few contributed to gerontology research except for two stalwarts - Infosys Co-founder Kris Gopalakrishnan and former Tata Group chairman Ratan Tata who involved Tata Trust in this pursuit.

Ask Gopalakrishnan about the billionaire age-warriors abroad and he says, "They want to see what happens during ageing and whether it can be reversed. My curiosity is different and I have two clear goals. First, I want to understand neurological disorders so that we can prevent or delay their onset. Second, we must learn from the working of the brain and come up with better and more efficient computing models."

"The brain is super efficient. For example, it consumes just 20W while a computer with a similar capability consumes at least 300MW. So, I want to support brain research to help the society and the country," he says.

But there are other reasons to worry.

"Anecdotally speaking, India will have around 200 million people above the age of 65 over the next 10- 15 years. It is also estimated that 20 per cent of them will develop some mental disorder, and the societal cost could be high. That is why I am backing the research on the mental health of older people," he elaborates.

Gopalakrishnan has funded the Centre for Brain Research (CBR), an autonomous entity at IISc, Bengaluru. In 2015, he put in Rs 225 crore for the centre for five years, along with Rs 50 crore for the building. He also supports neuromorphic computing research at IISc.

At present, the CBR is conducting an urban and a rural study with two sets of volunteers. The urban population study called the Tata Longitudinal Study of Aging covers 400 people aged between 45 and 85, with a median age of 65. The number of subjects is being ramped up to 1,000 and their health parameters are monitored at regular intervals. Backed by the Tata Trust since 2014, the project received Rs 75 crore for five years and remains a part of the bigger study that explores the basic biology of Alzheimer's. The other study, started last year, intends to cover about 10,000 people from the rural Kolar district in Karnataka.

So far, the study has included 1,200 people. The focus is to identify the risk factors the subjects are facing so that a public health approach can be adopted to prevent them and eventually delay the onset of dementia. The CBR is also spearheading a Genome India Grand alliance, supported by the government and a consortium of institutions.

The big problem remains, though. At this stage, nobody knows why the brain ages the way it does and how people like Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya (India's iconic civil engineer) could live for more than a century without losing their mental sharpness.

A more recent and even more bizarre concept is Viternity or virtual eternity whose stated goal is to embrace a digital existence after death. This will require scanning and copying of the human brain either before death or while it remains fresh. A machine has to be developed for creating a digital prototype, and the brain must be split into micro-thin segments to get it done. Y Combinator-incubated start-up Nectome claims to be working on brain preservation and memory upload. It has raised undisclosed funding, but legal and ethical implications have already given it a ghoulish aura. Russian multimillionaire Dmitry Itskov also wants to transfer an individual's personality to a non-biological carrier (read a machine body) so that humans can attain immortality by 2045.

Will we end up as our bionic avatars while our minds and memories get downloaded from a server residing somewhere in the cyberspace? The price of immortality suddenly seems overwhelming, but Gollner seems to have summed it up right. "The rich, powerful and important have always tried to circumvent destiny by throwing money at it. But we cannot bribe our way out."


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