The titans of the tech industry are known for their confidence that they can solve any problem–even, as it turns out, the one that’s defeated every other attempt so far. That’s why the most far-out strategies to cheat death are being tested in America’s playground for the young, deep-pocketed and brilliant: Silicon Valley.
Larry Ellison, the co-founder of Oracle, has given more than $330 million to research about aging and age-related diseases. Alphabet CEO and co-founder Larry Page launched Calico, a research company that targets ways to improve the human lifespan. Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, has also invested millions in the cause, including over $7 million to the Methuselah Foundation, a nonprofit focused on life-extension therapies.
Rather than wait years for treatments to be approved by federal officials, many of them are testing ways to modify human biology that fall somewhere on the spectrum between science and entrepreneurialism. It’s called biohacking, and it’s one of the biggest things happening in the Bay Area.
“My goal is to live beyond 180 years,” says Dave Asprey, CEO of the supplement company Bulletproof, most famous for its popularization of coffee with organic butter mixed in. “I am doing every single thing I can to make it happen for myself.”
For some, that means daily pill regimens and fasting once a week. For others, it means having the blood of a young person pumped into their veins. “I see biohacking as a populist movement within health care,” says Geoffrey Woo, the CEO of a company called Nootrobox that sells supplements that promise to enhance brain function.
Many scientists are skeptical. Here’s what’s known–and what isn’t–about the latest front of humanity’s fight against the inevitable.
24 Mostly Insane Ways Man Has Tried to Cheat Death
THE HACK: It may sound vampiresque, but 50 people in the U.S. have paid $8,000 for a transfusion of plasma from someone between the ages of 16 to 25. The study is run by Ambrosia, a company based in Monterey, Calif.
THE HYPE: The transfusions are based on the idea that two-liter injections of blood from the young may confer longevity benefits. Now, in the first known human clinical trial of its kind, Ambrosia is enlisting people willing to pay the hefty price to give it a shot.
Ambrosia’s founder, Jesse Karmazin, who has a medical degree but is not a licensed physician, says that after the transfusions, his team looks for changes in the recipient’s blood, including markers of inflammation, cholesterol and neuron growth. “When we are young, we produce a lot of factors that are important for cellular health,” he says. “As we get older, we don’t produce enough of these factors. Young blood gives your body a break to repair and regenerate itself.”
THE DEBATE: Scientists are roundly critical of this study, in large part because of the way it has been designed: there’s no control group, it’s costly to participate in, and the people enrolled don’t share key characteristics that make them appropriate candidates to be looked at side by side.
“What Ambrosia is doing is not useful and could be harmful,” says Irina Conboy, an associate professor of bioengineering at the University of California, Berkeley, who is also studying blood as a potential target for aging.
The concept stems from mouse research by Conboy and others. In 2005, she and her research partner and husband Michael Conboy showed that when older mice were surgically sutured to younger mice, their tissues got healthier. The takeaway was not that young blood is a cure-all, but some entrepreneurs ran with the idea. “The story has switched into a highly exaggerated search of young blood as a silver bullet to combat aging,” Irina says.
In a recent follow-up study, the Conboys developed a way to exchange the blood of young and old mice without surgically joining them. They found that old mice had some improvements but that young mice experienced rapid declines.
“The big result is that a single exchange hurts the young partner more than it helps the old partner,” says Michael. Ambrosia says plasma transfusions are safe and, if proven effective, should be made available.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Blood-based therapies for longevity could still be in our future, but the science isn’t there yet. “Donor blood can save lives, but using it to rejuvenate oneself is counterproductive,” says Irina.
DATA-MINING YOUR OWN DNA
THE HACK: If you could learn your risks for the most-feared diseases years before you’d actually get sick, would you? For the curious (and the brave), there’s Health Nucleus, an eight-hour, $25,000 head-to-toe, inside-and-out physical exam that includes whole-genome sequencing, high-tech scanning and early diagnostics. The goal is to paint a granular picture of an individual’s health and disease risk, which could then inform lifestyle and medical choices that keep you healthier, longer.
THE HYPE: Health Nucleus bills the elite program as “a genomic-powered clinical research project that has the potential to transform health care.” It was founded in 2015 by J. Craig Venter, the scientist widely credited with being one of the first to sequence the human genome, and it doesn’t come cheap. The Health Nucleus price tag is for a single session, during which patients get a sequencing of their genome and microbiome, a full-body MRI and an array of blood tests. When the results come in, doctors translate the findings into measurements that patients can understand–and advice they can act upon.
The Health Nucleus team believes this deluge of information can help doctors flag problems that could lead to premature death for their patients down the line. “Right now medicine is a reactionary system where if you get pain or other symptoms, then you go see your doctor and they see if they can fix it,” says Venter. “It’s totally different from trying to predict your risk or identifying problems early, before they cause fatal disease. If you have the right knowledge, you can save your life.”
THE DEBATE: Genome sequencing can indeed pinpoint genetic risk for some cancers and other diseases. And microbiome profiles–which look at the makeup of bacteria in the gut–can provide clues about the presence of some chronic diseases. Changes in cholesterol and blood sugar can also signal illness, though that kind of blood work is routinely tested by primary-care physicians.
About 400 people ages 30 to 95 have had the physical so far, and the test has identified significant medical problems in 40% of them, according to Venter, who says they’ve found cancer, aneurysms and heart disease in several people without symptoms.
Still, it raises questions among its skeptics about whether or not patients can actually use most (or any) of the data they receive. It also highlights some doctors’ concerns about the negative consequences of overscreening, where there is always a risk for false positive results. “When healthy people undergo scanning, it can backfire,” says Dr. Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute, who has studied data-driven medicine. “It can find abnormalities and lead to more tests and procedures, many of them unnecessary. It can cause harm, not to mention anxiety and expense.”
This isn’t news to Venter. “The criticism people throw out is ‘How dare you screen healthy people?'” he says. “My response is, ‘How do you know they’re healthy?’ We are finding pretty good evidence that many are not.”
Topol says a rigorous study of the program by independent researchers could help settle the score. “If validated for benefit in this way,” Topol says, “my outlook would be more positive.”
THE BOTTOM LINE: Venter acknowledges that while costs may come down, the battery of tests is so far too expensive to be realistic for most. Whether it adds years to a person’s life is also an open question. For now, looking into the crystal ball requires a whole lot of money–and a comfort with uncertainty.