From earliest recorded history, a procession of emperors, alchemists and charlatans have searched in vain for the mythical elixir of life. So perhaps it should be no surprise that the hunt for a cure for ageing is the latest investment fad among the gods of our time: US technology entrepreneurs.
Larry Ellison, founder of Oracle, and Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal and an early Facebook backer, are among those to have poured personal wealth into the quest. They were joined last year by Google, whose secretive biotech start-up, Calico, is receiving hundreds of millions of dollars from the internet group to support its bid to unlock the secrets of ageing.
Some have mocked such ventures as Silicon Valley hubris. But others believe these west coast visionaries have accurately anticipated the next big breakthrough in medical science: a significant extension in healthy human lifespan.
Finding ways for people to live even longer might sound like the last thing needed in a world whose ageing population increasingly looks like a social and economic time-bomb. But what if life could be extended in such a way that allowed people to remain active and economically productive for longer?
This was the vision set out by Jay Olshansky, professor of public health at the University of Illinois, when he presented a paper to an audience including Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, two years ago.
“He was asking some interesting questions about what our health priorities should be,” recalls Prof Olshansky. “I told him a cure for cancer would create more problems than it solved because if you save people from one disease you are just exposing them to an increased risk of dying from something else. The aim should be to look at the underlying risk factors behind age-related diseases.”
Prof Olshansky cannot be sure that he influenced Google’s decision to create Calico – short for the California Life Company – but he says its push on ageing research has brought credibility to a field once associated with cranks and dreamers.
Google’s potential to use its powers of data analysis to advance medical science has made big pharma take notice. In September, AbbVie, the US drugmaker, agreed an alliance with Calico that will see the pair jointly invest up to $1.5bn to develop treatments for age-related conditions.
Arguably the most pressing medical challenge posed by an ageing population – and one of the biggest commercial opportunities – is Alzheimer’s disease. Worldwide incidence is projected to triple to 135m cases by 2050 but so far no drug has been found to slow the memory-erasing condition, less still cure it.
Companies have lost hundreds of millions of dollars in failed trials, leading some such as Pfizer and Sanofi to drop out of the race. Others have doubled-down. Eli Lilly, for example, last year embarked on its third late-stage trial after two failures. Trafford Clarke, managing director of Eli Lilly’s neuroscience research centre, says: “We’ll find out in two years whether that was the smartest decision we’ve made or whether we’ll be thinking ‘what possessed us to do that?’”
While an Alzheimer’s drug would be a big prize, a treatment for ageing itself would be even bigger. Calico is one of several start-ups exploring this frontier. Another is Human Longevity, founded by Craig Venter, the celebrated US geneticist, with the goal of “expanding a healthier, high performing, more productive lifespan”.
Some of the most promising science is in the field of regenerative medicine, which involves repairing or replacing malfunctioning cells and tissues.
Prof Olshanksy believes that, rather than trying to cheat death, the priority should be to “close the gap between when you die and when you get frail”. This could produce huge social and economic benefits in reduced healthcare costs and increased productivity and consumption.
Others are more explicit about their desire to extend life itself. “There is nothing built into our biological system that says we can only live for a certain number of years,” says Michael Kope, chief executive of the Sens research foundation, an anti-ageing research charity.
The oldest human on record was Jeanne Calment, a French woman who died in 1997 aged 122. What would be the social implications if such a lifespan became commonplace in future? Mr Kope says the world would adapt. “When we give vaccines to children we don’t say ‘what are we going to do with all those extra people?’ We do it because saving lives is the right thing to do.”