Peter Thiel, the billionaire co-founder of PayPal, plans to live to be 120. Compared with some other tech billionaires, he doesn’t seem particularly ambitious. Dmitry Itskov, the “godfather” of the Russian Internet, says his goal is to live to 10,000; Larry Ellison, co-founder of Oracle, finds the notion of accepting mortality “incomprehensible,” and Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, hopes to someday “cure death.”
These titans of tech aren’t being ridiculous, or even vainglorious; their quests are based on real, emerging science that could fundamentally change what we know about life and about death. It’s hard to believe, though, since the human quest for immortality is both ancient and littered with catastrophic failures. Around 200 B.C., the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, accidentally killed himself trying to live forever; he poisoned himself by eating supposedly mortality-preventing mercury pills.
Centuries later, the search for eternal life wasn’t much safer: In 1492, Pope Innocent VIII died after blood transfusions from three healthy boys whose youth he believed he could absorb. A little closer to modern times, in 1868 America, Kentucky politician Leonard Jones ran for the U.S. presidency on the platform that he’d achieved immortality through prayer and fasting—and could give his secrets for cheating death to the public. Later that year, Jones died of pneumonia.
But historical precedent hasn’t dissuaded some of the biggest names in Silicon Valley. Thiel, for example, has given $3.5 million to the Methuselah Foundation. Aubrey de Grey, Methuselah’s co-founder, says the nonprofit’s main research initiative, Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS), is devoted to finding drugs that cure seven types of age-related damage: “Loss of cells, excessive cell division, inadequate cell death, garbage inside the cell, garbage outside the cell, mutations in the mitochondria, and crosslinking of the extracellular matrix.… The idea is that the human body, being a machine, has a structure that determines all aspects of its function, including its chance of falling apart any time soon, so if we can restore that structure—at the molecular and cellular level—then we will restore function too, so we will have comprehensively rejuvenated the body.”
But SENS, which has an annual operating budget of $5 million, is puny compared with the Brin-led Project Calico, Google’s attempt to “cure death,” which is planning to pump billions into a partnership with pharmaceutical giant AbbVie. Google is notoriously secretive, but it’s rumored to be building a drug to mimic foxo3, a gene associated with exceptional life span.
Then there’s the Glenn Foundation for Medical Research, the granddaddy of modern antiaging initiatives, started by venture capitalist Paul F. Glenn in 1965. Since 2007, the foundation has distributed annual “Glenn Awards,” $60,000 grants to independent researchers doing promising work on aging. The Glenn Foundation also works to kick-start antiaging initiatives within large institutions (“It began at Harvard, and then we sought out MIT and then the Salk Institute and then the Mayo Clinic,” Mark R. Collins, spokesman for the Glenn Foundation, explains), and it puts more than $1 million per year toward grants by the American Federation for Aging Research, a charitable foundation dedicated to age-related disease.
The Glenn Foundation also works closely with the Ellison Medical Foundation, a far younger institution (founded in 1997). Ellison’s passion project gives out hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants each year to scholars pursuing research on, and remedies for, aging. Their decision to fund independent research—as opposed to creating grandiose, in-house programs—may be paying off. Relatively modest research projects funded by Ellison and Glenn appear to be developing into a verifiable means to stave off old age—for lab mice. The tantalizing question: Can those lab results be replicated in humans?
Picture: James Tourtellotte, photo editor of CBP Today [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons