Even 10 years ago, the idea of reversing ageing and conquering human mortality was still fringe science, seen as snake-oil research by most scientists, large pharmaceutical companies, and the public. What a difference a decade makes. Anti-ageing science is poised to become a major industry in the biotech world.
To prove its promise, the first million-dollar bet on who can live the longest (for company stock — a signed deal likely made public later this week) was recently struck. It was made last month by two leading longevity advocates at the biggest annual healthcare investing event of the year, the JPMorgan Health Care Conference.
Dmitry Kaminskiy, senior partner of Hong Kong-based technology venture fund, Deep Knowledge Ventures, and Dr. Alex Zhavoronkov, PhD, CEO of bioinformatics company Insilico Medicine Inc. which specialises in drug discovery and drug repurposing for ageing and age-related diseases, signed a wager to indicate exactly how sure they are that science is turning the tide against the eternal problem of human ageing.
The terms go like this:
- If one of the parties passes away before the other, $US1 million dollars in Insilico Medicine stock will be passed to the surviving party
- The agreement will vest once both parties reach 100 years
- Parties agree not to accelerate each other's demise (i.e. try to kill each other)
"Longevity competitions may be a great way to combat both psychological and biological ageing," Dr Zhavoronkov emailed me. "I hope that we will start a trend." He sees longevity bets catching on around the world, and thinks if people will embrace competition to live longer, they may leave behind a global culture that largely accepts ageing and human death as a given.
Kaminskiy agrees. "I would really like to make similar bets with Bill Gates, Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg so they could live longer lives and create great products, but I don't think they will be worthy competitors on longevity," he wrote me in an email. "But I would like to challenge Sergey Brin and Larry Page to a similar competition due to their seemingly high interest in the sphere and Calico project."
There's been a plethora of activity recently in the longevity field, also known as life extension science, the practice of trying to find ways to stop ageing and disease. Its supporters are often called life extensionists, transhumanists and immortalists, and they aim to use medical discoveries in regenerative medicine, stem cells, tissue rejuvenation, molecular repair, pharmaceuticals and organ replacement as means to live longer.
Reuters reported that Dr Aubrey de Grey, a leading biomedical gerontologist and chief scientist at SENS Research Foundation, thinks scientists may be able to control ageing in the near future, "I'd say we have a 50/50 chance of bringing ageing under what I'd call a decisive level of medical control within the next 25 years or so."
The last two years have seen the creation of major anti-ageing companies, such as Google's Calico and J. Craig Venture's new San Diego-based genome sequencing startup Human Longevity, (co-founded with Peter Diamandis of the X-Prize Foundation and stem cell pioneer Robert Hariri) which already has 70 million dollars in financing. Billionaires like Larry Ellison and Peter Thiel are also funding research into longevity science.
There's a growing stream of anti-ageing studies, discoveries and projects appearing in science journals and major media — the US political Transhumanist Party has made dedicating national resources to life extension science its top priority for Americans.
"Seems like a new investment boom is coming, resembling the Dot Com boom," Kaminskiy told me.
So is this kind of longevity wager just a gimmick, or can it actually help anti-ageing science out? Andrew Garazha, an analyst at England-based biotechnology and regenerative medicine company Ageing Analytics, who witnessed the bet and first told me about the story, explained the significance in an email:
The bet signifies:
1. We are very confident that lifespans will be extended dramatically
2. Competing for longevity provides extra incentives to take care of our health today and try various approaches to extend lifespans
3. Competing for longevity provides extra motivation to live
Garazha has a point about competition. Historically speaking, other competitions and bets have been made to further science and humanity's ambitions. Napolean Bonaparte offered 12,000 Franks for anyone who could learn to preserve food, something that would greatly help his far-off military campaigns. The winner was Nicolas François Appert, whose method of boiling and sealing food in bottles in 1809 led to canned food.
Of course other bets, competitions and races are more well-known: The X Prize competition, the Soviet and American race to the moon during the Cold War, and even IBM's Deep Blue beating Gary Kasparov in chess. This match-up was originally spurred by a competition, in which the IBM team won the $US100,000 prize.
Longevity competitions themselves may seem new and futuristic, but they have some historical precedence. A moderately popular investment annuity plan in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries called tontines encouraged competition to live longer by giving investment funds of deceased participants to living participants.
A more well-known longevity bet was made by 90-year-old Jeanne Calment and attorney Andre-Francois Raffray. The agreement was that Raffray would pay her a monthly amount of $US500 while she was living — but he would inherit her apartment after she died. Given her old age, it seemed like a prudent business move. But Calment went on to become a supercentenarian, dying at 122.5 years, which is now the longest confirmed lifespan of any human being on record. Ironically, Raffray died before Calment, but not before paying double what the apartment was worth.
If the bet between Kaminsky and Zharvorokov seems a like a way to generate publicity hype for longevity science, that's because it is. But like many other longevity leaders, they are not in this to for money or fame. They are doing this for a singular and extremely human reason: They don't want to die. And they want others to know that — in the 21st Century, an age spilling over with new radical science, medicine, and technology — they might not have to either.
"Technology is evolving so fast," Kaminskiy said, "that I have no doubt that we will be able to live centuries instead of decades."