Bay Area seeing rush of research, investment in human longevity
Living for 100 years is rare today but century-long healthy lives could eventually become the norm as scientists unravel the aging process and billionaires invest in a field that is now taking off, researchers and market analysts say.
“It’s not a fantasy. I firmly believe we are going to get there,” said Eric Verdin, president of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in Novato. “The question is how long is it going to take to get there.”
A recent subtle but significant shift for scientists at Buck and throughout the field of aging may have shortened the forecast at a time when the U.S. and global population is growing older and the cost of treating the infirmities of the elderly threatens to multiply.
Geroscience, a term coined at Buck in 2007, is based on the recognition that aging itself is the enabler of the deadly and debilitating afflictions associated with growing old: Alzheimer’s, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, glaucoma and frailty.
Buck scientists working separately on cures for specific diseases “ended up realizing they were all focusing on the same pathways,” Verdin said. The common element: Aging, he said.
Geroscience is a new focused “approach (that) aims to target the molecular processes that underpin aging here, and fix them at their roots, stopping aging before it begins,” according to the website geroscience.com, which tracks developments in the field.
Its boosters are making ambitious statements about human longevity and leading efforts are attracting some major investors.
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, and big companies like Google and Facebook, as well as the federal government’s science funding arm, are placing big bets on the research.
Examples include a Bay Area startup, Unity Biotechnology, that is testing a drug on humans to cure osteoarthritis of the knee. Bezos and billionaire Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, were among the investors contributing more than $300 million in funding to the firm.
Google’s Calico, a biotech research company founded in 2013, is focused on aging and age-related diseases. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, have pledged up to $13 billion to a philanthropic investment group aimed at curing, preventing or managing all diseases within their children’s lifetime.
Science of longevity
Jim Mellon, a British entrepreneur and investor, believes humans will eventually live to as much as 120 years. He has used the term “healthspan” to underscore the awareness that keeping sick people alive for a few added decades would serve no purpose.
More than $4 billion has been invested in the top 30 longevity companies since 2007, with amounts that have sharply risen in the last four years, hitting about $1.3 billion this year, he said.
“The trajectory of money coming into this area — and by the way, money drives everything as we all know — is very similar to the money that came into technology” in the United States in the 1990s, Mellon said during a program last week at the Buck Institute.
“The science of longevity is catching up with the aspirations of all of us to live a longer and healthier life,” Mellon said to an audience dominated by scientists and students.
All the work at Buck is now geroscience, and it received more than $25 million in new grants this year from the National Institutes of Health. There are 25 faculty members at Buck, founded in 1999 as the first institution dedicated to research on aging, and it plans to expand to 50 faculty.