How Silicon Valley is trying to cure ageing
Silicon Valley scientists believe they are on the cusp of discovering the cause of ageing, which will help them achieve the unthinkable: find a cure. Earlier this year, doctor and investor Joon Yun launched the Palo Alto Longevity Prize, offering $1 million (£650,000) to anyone who could “hack the code of life” and come up with a way to keep us young.
“It’s always been said that there’s two certainties in life: death and taxation, but death isn’t looking so certain anymore,” says Stuart Kim, one of 50 world-class advisers on the prize board and a professor in Developmental Biology and Genetics at Stanford University. He believes ageing is simply a medical problem for which a solution can be found.
The prize will be awarded to the first team to unlock what many believe to be the secret to ageing: homeostatic capacity, or the ability of the body's systems to stabilise in response to stressors. As the body ages, being able to recover from diseases, injuries and lifestyle stresses becomes more difficult. In youth, blood pressure and elevated blood sugar levels can return easily to normal levels.
As homeostatic capacity erodes as we get older, the body is no longer able to regulate these changes as effectively, resulting in diseases such as diabetes or hypertension. Dr Yun, who worked for several years as a radiologist at Stanford Hospital before joining a hedge fund investing in health care, uses the analogy of a "weeble wobble" toy to explain that no matter how far it is pushed, it is able to centre itself again.
A person only becomes aware of their body's homeostasis when they start losing it in middle age: often characterised by the loss of ability to tolerate cold or hot weather, or feeling nauseous after a roller-coaster ride where you once felt exhilarated.
"Up until about 45 years old, most people die from external stressors such as trauma or infection, but as we get older we die of what looks like a loss of intrinsic capacities," he tells The Sunday Telegraph. Increased homeostatic capacity could allow people to live beyond 120 years, the theoretical maximum human lifespan.
Scientists could effectively slow down the body's clock and enable us to remain middle aged for 50 years or more, meaning we can feel 50 when we are really 80. The future could see us not just living longer, but staying healthier for longer. "This isn't like plastic surgery where you're papering over the cracks, this is actually making a person younger from the inside out," Dr Yun says.
The first half of the prize will be awarded next year to the team that can restore the homeostatic capacity of an ageing adult mammal to that of a young one, thereby reversing the effects of ageing. The second half to the team that can then extend the lifespan of their chosen mammal by 50 per cent of published norms.
So far 15 teams have entered, including a handful from Stanford University as well as from further afield at the genetics department at George Washington University in DC and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York. But they face even fiercer competition outside the prize. Google recently unveiled its own $1.2 billion research centre Calico, or the California Life Company, aiming to achieve the tech giant's boldest ambition yet – extend the human lifespan.
While their work, which is led by Arthur Levinson, former CEO of biotech firm Genentech, is shrouded in secrecy, they are said to be focusing on developing drugs for age-related neurodegenerative disorders. "Our goal is to make progress on a very basic challenge: how to help people stay healthier for longer," Mr Levinson said of the project.