A growing number of health startups in the emerging field of geroscience are attempting to hack the process of aging and delay the onset of diseases associated with growing old. Some are using the blood of young people to develop products for use on old people, raising ethical questions.
Scientists have newfound confidence in the idea that aging can be measured, reverse-engineered and controlled, according to Felipe Sierra, the former director of the Division of Aging Biology at the National Institutes of Health.
Until recently, “people working on diseases did not think that aging was modifiable,” Sierra said in a Newsweek interview. “That is actually what many medical books say: The main risk factor for cardiovascular disease is aging, but we cannot change aging so let’s talk about cholesterol and obesity. For Alzheimer’s, aging is the main risk factor—but let’s talk about the buildup in the brain of beta-amyloid proteins. Now that is beginning to change.”
Proof of that change includes an explosion of research and flood of investment money in the months preceding the pandemic, Newsweek reported. Investors have spent billions of dollars funding biotech companies working on commercializing the new science.
“You have no idea how many people are interested in investing money in longevity,” said Nir Barzilai, the founding director of the Institute for Aging Research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University, and the founder of a company aimed at mitochondrial health.
“Jeff Bezos, Peter Thiel, Sergey Brin, Larry Ellison—name a Silicon Valley A-lister and he or she is likely funding longevity research, experimenting with anti-aging interventions or both,” Megan Miller wrote for The Robb Report. “These are the masters of the universe who see no reason they can’t take the tech industry’s optimization obsession and apply it to the ultimate challenge: conquering death itself.”
An area of geroscience focuses on identifying beneficial elements of blood that dissipate as we age and others that accumulate and cause damage.
Earlier this year, the Spanish firm Grifols — a world leader in producing blood plasma-based products for clinical testing labs — closed on a $146 million-deal to buy Alkahest, a company founded by Stanford University neuroscientist Tony Wyss-Coray. Wyss-Coray and Saul Villeda published scientific papers in 2011 and 2014 claiming that the blood from young mice had seemingly miraculous restorative effects on the brains of old mice.
Alkahest has identified 8,000+ blood proteins that show potential as therapies. Along with Grifols, they have at least six phase 2 trials completed or underway to treat a range of age-related diseases, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Aging never ends well. We fall apart. There are no FDA-approved drugs that target the process of aging itself. Drugs must target a specific disease to get approval. The popular diabetes drug metformin is serving as the “template” for a new class of FDA-approved anti-aging drugs, Newsweek reported. Studies are underway. If approved, it would create a new regulatory category of drugs that work to prevent our bodies from deteriorating further once we have already developed a disease rather than treating specific diseases.
The time is coming when we treat aging as a disease, not an inevitability, Bob Roehr reported for The BMJ.
“If you do anti-aging right, you’ll have a level of resilience and energy to fight what comes your way,” said entrepreneur Dave Asprey in a Robb Report interview. Asprey founded the Bulletproof wellness empire and is a champion of the movement to extend human life expectancy beyond 100 years. He’s made millions experimenting on his own body and packaging his home-brewed prodcuts. “If you get Covid-19, you’re less likely to become very sick. The idea is that at a cellular level, you’re making yourself very hard to kill.”
Using blood from young donors to rejuvenate older adults is controversial. Hacking aging raises ethical questions. The TV series “Silicon Valley” featured an episode with a dotcom billionaire having his own “blood boy” follow him around to provide transfusions.
In 2016, former Stanford Medical School student Jesse Karmazin opened Ambrosia, a clinic in Monterey, California, and charged $8000 a liter to infuse clients with the blood of donors age 16 and 25.
“There is no evidence that blood donated from young people and given to older people has any health benefit,” said Stanford University Professor Thomas A. Rando, who has done pioneering research on how blood from younger animals can rejuvenate the cells and tissues of older animals.
“We’ve seen these benefits in mice, but we don’t know if this is true in humans,” Rando said in a May 2018 interview with AFAR, the American Federation for Aging Research. “This needs to be tested in bona fide clinical trials. Until we have solid evidence that there really is a proven benefit in humans, I would not recommend to anyone that they receive any blood product based on the prospect that it might have some sort of ‘rejuvenating’ benefit.”
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