National Post (Latest Edition)
Silicon Valley in bid to cheat death
Five ways tech tycoons are seeking to slow down the eff ects of aging
WE’VE GOT THE POTENTIAL TO RESTORE PEOPLE’S MOVEMENT (WITH ROBOTIC MUSCLES). IF THEY’VE HAD A STROKE, THEY MAY RECOVER THEIR OWN MUSCLE STRENGTH. — JONATHAN ROSSITER, PROFESSOR OF ROBOTICS — UNIVERSITY OF BRISTOL
Af ter decades spent improving the internet by launching search engines, social networks and payment systems, many of the wealthiest and brightest people in Silicon Valley are turning their attention to perhaps the most difficult problem of all: how can we live longer?
It sounds like the plot of a science-fiction novel, but the world’s largest companies are increasingly seeking to fund age-defying technology. Some are even trying to find ways for man to become immortal.
From robotic muscles to blood transfusions, here are five technologies being developed to cheat death.
1 Blood transfusions
The theory that consuming the blood of healthy young people could help delay aging is hardly new. The idea of vampires has existed for centuries, after all. But biotechnology businesses are growing increasingly interested.
Several years ago, a wave of new technology startups appeared that promised to offer transfusions to fill your veins with younger blood.
Peter Thiel, the billionaire co- founder of Paypal and Palantir, was at one point linked to parabiosis business Ambrosia, which charged US$ 8,000 for infusions of blood. The company eventually denied that Thiel was a client, however, and it shut down last year. This concept may seem surreal, but experts believe it’s too early to write it off. Richard Siow, the director of aging research at King’s College London, says there is potential.
“There may well be factors in the blood that we need to better identify that may be isolated and targeted for future therapeutics,” he says. “It’s not rocket science. If you’re young and you’re healthy and you’re growing, you’re going to have a different blood profile.”
But he urges caution: “It’s too early to say yes, have a blood transfusion, you’re going to be 10 years younger.”
2 Robotic muscles
It may sound like a plot line from a Terminator film, but the idea that we could implant robotic muscles inside our body to live longer has a grounding in science and has attracted government investment.
Bristol University has begun a study into the possibility of introducing artificial muscles into the body, to help slow down the effects of aging.
“We’ve got the potential to restore people’s movement,” says Jonathan Rossiter, a professor of robotics leading the project.
“If they’ve had a stroke, they may recover their own muscle strength and then we would just pull this muscle out. Or it could be that we need to have this as a longterm solution.”
Rossiter hopes keeping elderly people mobile for longer could keep them happy and out of care homes, potentially prolonging their life.
A current stumbling block is finding a power source small enough to work inside the body, but Rossiter hopes wireless charging could be used in the future.
“We could implant the power supply into the body along with the muscles,” he says. “And then when you’re lying in bed, the bed itself is charging your muscles.”
3 AI- powered drug discovery
Many technology startups are turning to artificial intelligence (AI), as a way to chew through the vast amounts of data about diseases and existing medicines, in an attempt to discover new drugs or repurpose existing ones.
Startups such as London- headquartered Benevolentai hope that their use of machine learning, a form of AI which can gradually teach itself, could lead to innovative treatments that can slow down the aging process.
It’s a concept that has excited anti- aging researchers such as Aubrey de Grey, the chief science officer of the SENS Foundation.
“A very important advance has been made over the past few years,” he says.
“In the anti- aging space, it’s particularly important.”
“The use of state- of- theart machine learning techniques is really working,” he adds.
Siow hopes that these companies could find new uses for anti- inflammatory drugs, which might help to slow down the aging process.
“That is a hot area of research. It’s not a wonder pill, but it could be.”
Making the human body so cold that it improves circulation or enables the preservation of organs after death is an established concept. Now, a new generation of technology businesses are hoping to breathe life into the field.
Cryonics, preserving our bodies after death in the hope that they could one day be brought back to life, is perhaps the most popular manifestation of this technology.
One advocate for this is De Grey, a long- term customer of cryonics business Alcor and a member of its scientific advisory board. Nectome is also hoping to shake up the field. It has received backing from the prominent Silicon Valley startup “accelerator” Y Combinator, which also backed Stripe, Airbnb and Reddit.
The business hopes to use cryonics to preserve people’s brains. On its website, it says it considers the idea of longterm memory extraction to be “under-explored.”
Another key route to slowing down the aging process and helping to reduce the impact of illnesses on the body is by introducing tiny machines into our blood streams and brains, in the hope that they can rid us of diseases and teach us more about how the body works.
One American startup, Nanotics, has raised more than $10 million for its technology, which uses small particles to attempt to bind to targets within the body.
“They can bind to stuff that needs to be mopped up and extracted from circulation,” says De Grey, who advises the business.
One problem these startups need to solve is stopping the liver breaking down their particles once they circulate through the body.
But the potential for using these particles to help treat pandemics like coronavirus, as well as to improve immunotherapy for cancer treatment, is strong.
“That is an area which needs more research,” Siow says.
“Embracing new technology is important.”