From The Wall Street Journal:
Amid today’s technological wizardry, it’s easy to forget that several decades have passed since a single innovation has dramatically raised the quality of life for millions of people. Summoning a car with one’s phone is nifty, but it pales in comparison with discovering penicillin or electrifying cities. Artificial intelligence is being heralded as the next big thing, but a cluster of scientists, technologists and investors are aiming higher. In the vernacular of Silicon Valley, where many of them are based, their goal is nothing less than disrupting death, and their story is at the center of “Immortality, Inc.” by science journalist Chip Walter.
Seeking to slow the aging process—if not halt it altogether—is far from a novel quest. In the 16th century, the explorer Ponce de León supposedly sought a fountain of youth in Florida, and the search for magical elixirs didn’t end when he failed to find it. Even so, the medical establishment has traditionally assigned only limited resources to aging, perhaps because, as odd as it may seem, death from old age is a relatively recent phenomenon. At the end of the 19th century, life expectancy in the United States was 48 years for whites and 34 for blacks. Aging, as a cause of death, took a back seat to tuberculosis, pneumonia and much else.
Americans began living longer in the 20th century, thanks to better sanitation and more effective vaccines and medicines. But growing old meant an increased vulnerability to other ailments, from heart disease to cancer. Progress in treating those conditions, in turn, has led to a higher incidence of Alzheimer’s. And while average life spans have been getting longer in much of the world—though declining in the United States in recent years—the outer limits of longevity haven’t changed much.
That is the backdrop to Mr. Walter’s absorbing story, which he begins with a visit to Alcor, the Arizona-based organization that says it preserves corpses at minus 124 degrees Celsius “in an attempt to maintain brain viability after the heart stops.” (Current “patients” include baseball legend Ted Williams.) While this life-extending strategy, known as “cryonics,” is often ridiculed, the individuals profiled in “Immortality, Inc.” are high-status, highly regarded figures whose initiatives can’t be easily dismissed. What links them, writes Mr. Walter, is that “they are all troublemakers at heart.” They believe that the “conventional approaches” of most medical researchers and practitioners are, “at the very least, misguided.”
One key figure in the story is Bill Maris, a venture capitalist with a background in neuroscience. In 2012, dismayed by the lack of research into aging, he began meeting with some of his fellow Silicon Valley heavyweights, like Google co-founder Larry Page, who took an immediate interest. In short order, recounts Mr. Walter, they met with Arthur Levinson, an Apple board member who had spent 14 years as chief executive of the biotech trailblazer Genentech. Less than a year later, Mr. Levinson founded Calico, a company devoted to drug development and extending the human life span. Google kicked in $750 million, as did the pharmaceutical company AbbVie.
Mr. Levinson’s maverick mind-set shines through in a discussion he had a few years ago with several scientists and doctors. According to Mr. Walter, he asked them how much the average life span would increase if all cancer were eliminated. Most assumed about a decade. The answer, said Mr. Levinson, was just 2.8 years. The prospect of such a modest return helped inspire Mr. Levinson and his Calico colleagues to concentrate even more intensely on unraveling the mysteries of life-span biology. (One of their finds, so far, is a rodent native to Africa that shows “little to no signs of aging.”)
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“As recently as five years ago,” Mr. Walter writes, “the great pashas at [the National Institutes of Health] . . . looked upon aging research as largely crackpot.” He faults the Food and Drug Administration for refusing to classify aging as a disease. As a result, clinical trials—the foundation of medical research—can’t be conducted.
Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)
PG was going to opine but, surprisingly, decided not to do so.