worth

Deploying their immense wealth, business and tech impresarios are investing

in their next disruption

Anti-aging research is the next big thing in healthcare. Companies such as Calico and Human Longevity, both based in California, are pioneering genetic and pharmacological techniques to reduce the ravages of time on the human body. At the fringes of science, Alcor, an Arizona-based nonprofit, vitrifies dead people in hopes of reviving them at a later date, while Russian internet mogul Dmitry Itskov seeks to create cybernetic bodies to host human consciousness.

Aging “is one of the great mysteries of biology,” says Dr. Thomas Rando, director of the Glenn Center for the Biology of Aging at Stanford University. “If we begin to understand what the process of decline associated with aging is, and if we can slow that by targeting those mechanisms, then potentially one could alter its course.”

The idea that death can be forestalled by a magical substance, usually the mystical waters of the Fountain of Youth, dates back at least to the Greek historian Herodotus in the 5th century BC. The “elixir of life” also appears in ancient Chinese and Indian legends and in alchemical texts from medieval Europe. The Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León was thought to have quested throughout the New World in the 16th century in search of the fabled Fountain of Youth.

As living standards improved in the 20th century, the quest for eternal life was subsumed into modern medicine’s fight against infectious disease. The average American’s life expectancy rose from 70 in 1960 to almost 79 in 2012, according to the World Bank. Yet little attention was paid to extending good health into old age. Rather than dying at 70, people now live to be far older, but often with a lesser quality of life.

Serious anti-aging research only started about a decade ago. “Improving health is the goal, and longevity might be the consequence of the improvement,” says Dr. Joon Yun, president of hedge fund Palo Alto Investors and sponsor of the Palo Alto Longevity Prize, which funds anti-aging research.

At the time, scientists interested in treating or preventing the impairments of aging were often seen as either out of touch or just plain kooky. “I remember talking to some people from [the healthcare company] Roche about 15 years ago about this notion of drugs that might target the aging process,” Rando says. “They thought that was ridiculous.”

Two trends have since proved to be the foundation for longevity research: new discoveries in genomics and the ability to share information over the internet. But for the most part, longevity research has not been funded by conventional research institutes or biotech companies—as great as the payoff could be, there’s little to no short-term return. Instead, some of the world’s wealthiest and most visible entrepreneurs have taken up the challenge. Some have a background in medicine, but most of these investors come from the worlds of technology and engineering. That makes more than just financial sense. “It’s clear now that biology is an engineering project, whereas before that wasn’t so obvious,” says Sonia Arrison, author of 100 Plus, a book about the effects of superannuation.

The prospects are encouraging: Participants in longevity research say they expect rapid gains in a matter of years and decades. It’s not unreasonable to think that today’s children could regularly crack 100 or even 120.

“It’s the holy grail of healthcare, extending a human lifespan,” says Dr. Peter Diamandis, cofounder of Human Longevity and CEO of the XPrize Foundation, which awards financial gifts for scientific and technological advancements. Yet there’s a downside to the prospect of extreme longevity: If people don’t maintain good health into their senescence, longevity could place enormous strain on economies and societies.

And, of course, philosophical questions abound. What do highly successful people like Sergey Brin, Larry Ellison or Peter Thiel—or anyone else for that matter—gain by living a few years more? How will added longevity change age-old notions of the phases of life? Will longevity become, even more than it already is, a gift largely conferred on the wealthy?

The research will not pause to answer these questions. Here are six successful entrepreneurs who have turned their energy—and their wealth—to the project of longer life.

grow_immortality_yunDR. JOON YUN

Managing partner and president,
Palo Alto Investors Sponsor, Palo Alto Longevity Prize

“Nature endowed the greatest healthcare system in the world: It’s called our bodies,” Yun says, explaining why he endowed the $1 million Palo Alto Longevity Prize. “Our body is an incredible system that is able to self-heal.” Yet beginning in middle age, “it is more vulnerable to the slings and arrows of life.”

Yun, 47, graduated from Harvard with a degree in evolutionary biology before getting his MD at Duke and joining Stanford’s clinical faculty. He signed on with Palo Alto Investors, a $1 billion healthcare investment fund, in 1998. His goal? To extend what he calls “healthspan”—our healthy years before we begin to decline—into middle and old age; if longer life is a consequence, so much the better.

Under the current healthcare regime, Yun says, “we have been helping people live longer and stronger lives, but the trajectory is unsustainable. This idea of helping people live longer without solving the underlying cause of aging lends itself to exponential increases in healthcare spending.

“This is an area of relative market dysfunction,” he adds. Biotech companies and healthcare providers are incentivized to treat diseases, not prevent them. Compounding the problem, increased healthspan is hard to measure; it requires long time spans, discouraging companies with short-term goals from pursuing it.

Yun created the Longevity Prize to incentivize research in two areas: restoration of the body’s ability to repair and maintain itself, and extending the lifespan of a mammal by 50 percent. Preventing people from getting sick as they age, Yun says, is about “getting a lot more healthcare value for a lot less money.”

grow_immortality_itskovDMITRY ITSKOV

Founder, New Media Stars, 2045 Initiative

Itskov’s Facebook page displays a piece of promotional art from James Cameron’s 2009 movie, Avatar, with Itskov’s face pasted over it. The movie was about futuristic soldiers who transfer their minds to artificial bodies. Itskov, who launched Russian internet company New Media Stars in 1999, must have really liked Avatar, because in 2011 he founded the 2045 Initiative, a foundation that aims to transfer human consciousness into cybernetic bodies.

Itskov, 34, has plotted the evolution of humanity from carbon-based life form to liberated machine sentience. By 2020, according to his website, he foresees the “widespread use of affordable android ‘avatars’ controlled by a ‘brain-computer’ interface.” By 2025, an “autonomous life-support system for the human brain linked to a robot ‘avatar’ will save people whose body is completely worn out.” By 2045, “substance-independent minds will receive new bodies with capacities far exceeding those of ordinary humans.”

To get there, Itskov is investing in startups creating avatar technology, while the 2045 Initiative is designed to coordinate and support scientific advancement in the field.

grow_immortality_brinSERGEY BRIN

Cofounder, Google backer, Calico

On January 14, 2013, Brin posted on his Google+ page a photo of jellyfish suspended in the limpid water of a lake in Palau; because some jellyfish do not appear to die, they have become a focus of aging research. “No place in the world has made me consider my place in the universe like Jellyfish Lake,” Brin wrote. “Millions of creatures all drifting seemingly aimlessly, searching for light, for the energy to spawn so generations of their offspring may do the same years later. I take a small breath, sink toward the bottom, watching them in wonder and think, are we really so different?

This kind of thinking led Brin and Larry Page, his Google cofounder, to launch Calico in 2013 with money from the company’s venture capital arm, Google Ventures. (Brin is said to be considerably more involved. One possible reason why: Brin, 41, has a genetic mutation, LRRK2, which is thought to substantially increase the probability of developing Parkinson’s disease.) Calico’s stated goal is “to harness advanced technologies to increase our understanding of the biology that controls lifespan.” The company announced a $1.5 billion coinvestment with pharmaceutical company AbbVie in September 2014 to construct an R&D lab “focused on aging and age-related diseases, including neurodegeneration and cancer.”

Calico’s approach is twofold. In the short term, the company is developing drugs to treat age-related diseases; in the long run, Calico hopes to gain a larger, more holistic understanding of why humans age and to fight aging using pharmacology.

Calico is in a “unique situation in being able to invest in basic aging research without having to turn a profit for a long time,” Stanford’s Rando says. “So there’s the potential there to do something really big.”

grow_immortality_ellison

LARRY ELLISON

Executive chairman and CTO, Oracle
Founder, Ellison medical Foundation

Ellison, one of the most intriguing figures in Silicon Valley, gave more than $350 million for anti-aging research from 1997 to 2015, making him by far one of the largest sponsors of the field. With no tangible results in sight, he stopped making new grants in 2013, and has never publicly explained why. The foundation, however, still operates.

When Ellison, now 70, established the foundation, “there wasn’t enough traction to allow any success in the field,” says Dr. Kevin Lee, executive director of the Ellison Medical Foundation. The research grants provided by the foundation subsequently “defined this as a problem that wasn’t being addressed.” Ellison’s support, Lee says, helped move anti-aging research from the scientific fringe to the mainstream. “The foundation’s timing was perfect in providing the seeding for this field to develop.”

grow_immortality_kurzweilRAY KURZWEIL

Director of engineering, Google cofounder, Singularity University

Kurzweil is the eccentric uncle of Silicon Valley. He invented the CCD flatbed scanner and a machine that reads text to the blind. The recipient of 20 honorary doctorates, he cofounded Singularity University in Silicon Valley in 2007. Its mission: to become the epicenter of theorizing about the “singularity,” the moment when artificial intelligence will surpass human minds, allegedly leading to a tech utopia. Kurzweil believes that anti-aging research, nutrition and nanotechnology, among other things, will “enable humans to live indefinitely,” according to a note he wrote for the Methuselah Foundation website.

A major donor to the research-oriented Methuselah Foundation, Kurzweil, 67, is also a member of the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, a nonprofit that cryonically preserves people when they die in the hope of one day bringing them back to life.

“What’s the harm in rationalizing death?” Kurzweil wrote in 2004. “The harm is that in rationalizing something that is tragic, we fail to take the urgent action needed to avoid the tragedy.” As human lifespans grow, Kurzweil adds, “we are also going to merge with our technology and expand our cognitive and emotional capabilities, as well as the depth and richness of our intellectual, relational, artistic, sexual and emotional experiences many-fold.”

grow_immortality_thielPETER THIEL

Cofounder, PayPal, Palantir Technologies
Backer, SENS Research Foundation, the Methuselah Foundation

There are three approaches to death, Thiel recently told the Guardian: “You can accept it, you can deny it or you can fight it. I think our society is dominated by people who are into denial or acceptance, and I prefer to fight it.”

Thiel, 47, has said that he plans to live to be 120. He runs, takes human growth hormone, adheres to a Paleo diet and eschews sugar. He has also donated at least $6 million to the SENS Research Foundation and the Methuselah Foundation, both longevity-research projects started by a Cambridge-educated biologist named Aubrey de Grey.

“There’s 100,000 people or more dying every single day of aging or age-related causes,” de Grey says. “Mostly dying after a long period of decline and dependence and disease and general misery. So, you know, every single day that I bring the defeat of aging forward—which I probably do about once a month—I’m saving 100,000 lives. That’s pretty motivating.”

Thiel said in a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session last year that he prefers to invest in medical and research ventures when they resemble “software companies—a group of really committed founders with a clear vision of what they’re trying to do.”

“The key thing about Peter Thiel is he has a high threshold of reputation tolerance,” the Methuselah Foundation’s CEO, David Gobel, says. “There is a very large number of millionaires and billionaires who are legitimately terrified of being pilloried and burned at the stake in the media, because it’s happened to them and it has consequences… I think he’s made a rational calculation that his reputation is not worth as much as the potential.”

TWO APPROACHES

Some longevity organizations focus on bringing people back to life, others on keeping you from dying in the first place.

HUMAN LONGEVITY, INC.

A collaboration between cofounders Dr. Peter Diamandis, Dr. Robert Hariri and pioneering geneticist Dr. Craig Venter (see Q&A with Craig Venter), HLI may be the only serious competitor to Google Ventures’ Calico. The company focuses on extending life through genomics and stem cell therapies, and specifically targets cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases and cancer.

HLI is “building the largest genome-sequencing facility on the planet,” Diamandis says. It will also compile microbiome, MRI and metabolism data. “It’s just a massive amount of data that would have been impossible to manipulate, fathom or mine even just five years ago,” Diamandis adds. “We’re targeting millions of data sets from millions of individuals from around the world, from across ages, from across disease groups and mining that to extract knowledge and information.”

In January, the company announced a gene-sequencing agreement with biotech giant Genentech, which hopes to use Human Longevity’s findings to speed the discovery of new drugs.

ALCOR LIFE EXTENSION FOUNDATION

Alcor vitrifies people after they die in the hopes of bringing them back to life in the future. Members’ bodies are infused with a “cryoprotective solution, a kind of medical antifreeze” after they die, Alcor CEO Max More says, before being cooled and stored in liquid nitrogen.

The cost? At least $200,000 for the entire body or $80,000 for just the brain, and it can be paid using life insurance benefits. According to More, many wealthy members set up a trust so they have a nest egg if and when they wake up.

Healthspan Campaign: With Martha Stewart

Wonderful video narrated by Emmy Award-winning television show host and best-selling author Martha Stewart.  The Healthspan Imperative looks at our country’s next great priority: solving the challenges brought about by the aging of the American population. Featuring exclusive interviews from leading scientists and aging research experts. For more information, please visit Healthspan Campaign.

Live Longer, Live Well

Enjoy this great animation sponsored by the Glenn Foundation for Medical Research and designed by acclaimed data journalist David McCandless. The clip supports “Live Longer, Live Well,” a collaboration between AFAR, the British Society for Research on Ageing, and the Glenn Foundation for Medical Research. For more information, please visit: www.agingresearch.org

Ira T. Nicolai/GettyIra T. Nicolai/Getty

Researchers hope to find drugs that extend a person’s healthy years.

Doctors and scientists want drug regulators and research funding agencies to consider medicines that delay ageing-related disease as legitimate drugs. Such treatments have a physiological basis, researchers say, and could extend a person’s healthy years by slowing down the processes that underlie common diseases of ageing — making them worthy of government approval. On 24 June, researchers will meet with regulators from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to make the case for a clinical trial designed to show the validity of the approach.

Current treatments for diseases related to ageing “just exchange one disease for another”, says physician Nir Barzilai of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. That is because people treated for one age-related disease often go on to die from another relatively soon thereafter. “What we want to show is that if we delay ageing, that’s the best way to delay disease.”

Barzilai and other researchers plan to test that notion in a clinical trial called Targeting Aging with Metformin, or TAME. They will give the drug metformin to thousands of people who already have one or two of three conditions — cancer, heart disease or cognitive impairment — or are at risk of them. People with type 2 diabetes cannot be enrolled because metformin is already used to treat that disease. The participants will then be monitored to see whether the medication forestalls the illnesses they do not already have, as well as diabetes and death.

On 24 June, researchers will try to convince FDA officials that if the trial succeeds, they will have proved that a drug can delay ageing. That would set a precedent that ageing is a disorder that can be treated with medicines, and perhaps spur progress and funding for ageing research.

During a meeting on 27 May at the US National Institute on Aging (NIA) in Bethesda, Maryland, Robert Temple, deputy director for clinical science at the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, indicated that the agency is open to the idea.

Barzilai and his colleagues eschew claims of a quest for immortality, because they think that such assertions have led to a perception that the field is frivolous and irresponsible. “The perception is that we are all looking for a fountain of youth,” says Stephanie Lederman, executive director of the American Federation for Aging Research in New York. “We want to avoid that; what we’re trying to do is increase health span, not look for eternal life.”

Ageing research has hit bumps in the past decade, as companies marketing drugs touted to prolong life have gone bust (see Nature 464, 480–481; 2010). But organizers of the TAME trial think that the field is now in a better position because animal studies have shown that some drugs and lifestyle practices can extend life by targeting physiological pathways1.

For instance, the NIA-sponsored Interventions Testing Program, in which investigators at three sites are systematically trialling candidate age-delay treatments, has shown that a handful of interventions convincingly and reproducibly prolong the lives of various strains of mice. Those include cutting down on calorie intake and taking a drug called rapamycin that is used to prevent rejection of transplanted organs.

And researchers from the Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, reported in December that elderly people develop a stronger immune response to an influenza vaccination if they also take a rapamycin-like drug2. Rapamycin, which acts on a biological pathway involved in cell growth, is now seen as one of the most promising drugs for delaying ageing, but given over long periods of time it also suppresses the immune system.

Safety first

The TAME test is for metformin, which suppresses glucose production by the liver and increases sensitivity to insulin. The drug has been used for more than 60 years and is safe and prolongs healthy life and lifespan in worms3 and in some mouse strains1. Data also suggest that it could delay heart disease, cancer, cognitive decline and death in people with diabetes4. Plans call for the trial to enrol 3,000 people aged 70–80 years at roughly 15 centres around the United States. The trial will take 5–7 years and cost US$50 million, Barzilai estimates, although it does not yet have funding.

Matt Kaeberlein at the University of Washington, Seattle, who is running a trial of rapamycin in elderly dogs, says that the concept behind Barzilai’s trial is sound. Even though other drugs might be more effective at delaying ageing in animal studies, he says, the many years of experience with metformin in people, combined with data suggesting that it impacts the ageing process in people, make it a good candidate for a first clinical trial in the field.

“It’s a smart way to engage the FDA in a discussion about recognizing ageing as an indication that is appropriate for clinical trials,” Kaeberlein says.

Building on its previous gifts to MIT, the Glenn Foundation for Medical Research has pledged $2 million to establish a new center for the study of aging that incorporates research initiatives in the Department of Biology, Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, and David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT.

The new Paul F. Glenn Center for Science of Aging Research at MIT will be directed by Novartis Professor of Biology Leonard Guarente. The associate directors will be Li-Huei Tsai, director of the Picower Institute, and Angelika Amon, the Kathleen and Curtis Marble Professor in Cancer Research.

“With this generous gift, the Glenn Foundation will enable us to carry out a multitiered approach and leverage the strengths of all three labs to arrive at new and testable conclusions about what pathways and mechanisms govern aging,” Guarente said. “Behind all of our research is the drive to discover new therapeutic compounds that have the potential to improve the course of the aging process, and hopefully lead the way toward effective treatments for neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, as well as cancer.”

“Our goal is to prevent or delay the onset of age-related disease and decline, thereby extending human healthspan,” said Mark R. Collins, president and director of the Glenn Foundation.

Exploring key pathways and genes of aging

The new center will build upon research that was formerly conducted within the Paul F. Glenn Laboratory for Science of Aging Research, which was established at MIT in 2008 with a $5 million gift from the foundation and expanded with an additional $1 million gift in 2013. These efforts were led by Guarente, a pioneer in the field of aging research who is known for his work to uncover the SIR2 gene, a key regulator of longevity in yeast and worms. Since then, Guarente and his colleagues have continued to explore aging, and key pathways and genes that govern aging in the human brain. A particular focus has been the role of sirtuin activation and nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide supplementation in slowing the aging process and diseases of aging. Their recent work involves the use of bioinformatics to advance their analysis.

With support from the Glenn Foundation, Tsai and her team have used pluripotent stem cells derived from both young and old human subjects, including those with Alzheimer’s disease, to identify the neuroprotective effects of sirtuins and chromatin modifiers called histone deacetylases. The Tsai Laboratory’s work within the new Paul F. Glenn Center for Science of Aging Research at MIT will expand their use of stem cells to analyze the structures that support the maintenance of genome integrity as it relates to cognitive decline and neurological disorders in the aging brain. Emerging evidence indicates that genome integrity, or more specifically, accumulation of DNA damage underlies the processes of aging.

Amon’s group will diversify the research profile of Glenn Foundation-funded research at MIT to include studies of aneuploidy. Aneuploidy is a chromosomal disorder that changes the chromosome number compared to the normal complement. This phenomenon has been shown to have a severe impact on human health, including links to miscarriages, mental disability, and cancer; recent studies have also revealed a link to aging. Amon will use single-cell sequencing to assess the chromosomal landscape during human aging and in age-associated diseases to further elucidate whether aneuploidy is associated with aging in humans.

Combining MIT’s strengths to understand how we age

“One of the strengths of MIT is that it houses world-class life sciences, including neurobiology, as well as world-class engineering, including computer science,” Guarente stated. “These strengths will enable us to combine traditional wet lab experiments with computational methods of big data analysis in a unique way. We are thrilled to continue our partnership with the Glenn Foundation in the launch of this new center.”

The mission of the Glenn Foundation, founded in 1965 by Paul F. Glenn, is to extend the healthy productive years of life through research on the mechanisms of biological aging. In addition to funding work at MIT, the foundation has established Glenn Centers For Aging Research at a number of other institutions across the country that collectively form The Glenn Consortium for Research in Aging. For more information about the Glenn Foundation, visitglennfoundation.org.

The first person to live to 150 is alive today.

For many months I drove home past a financial-services billboard advertising this dramatic claim, followed by the punch line: “Let’s get ready for a longer retirement.”

The focus of that message, of course, is money—the size of our nest eggs. But the words highlight a far bigger challenge. In the early decades of the 21st century, we are pushing, rapidly, to extend our lives. But we’re paying scant attention to how we should make the most of that additional time.

Where are the innovations designed to make these bonus decades actually worth living? Aside from the mind-boggling prospect of saving for 50- or 75-year retirements, how do we make these new chapters both fulfilling for individuals and sustainable for society?

Life extension without social innovation is a recipe for dystopian disaster—what one critic characterizes as “the coming death shortage,” invoking images not only of endless (and unaffordable) retirements but of a society loaded down by a population explosion of the idle old.

As thousands of baby boomers each day surge into their 60s and 70s, it’s time to focus on enriching lives, not just lengthening them; on providing purpose and productivity, not just perpetuity.

We need to marshal imagination and ingenuity to devise new strategies for enhancing the whole range of experiences in later life, including education, faith, housing, work, finance and community.

EN-AB343B_GAP_P_20150526160056

ILLUSTRATION: ROBERT NEUBECKER FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL</>

Here are six ideas to launch us on that path.

Come up with a new name for this new chapter of life.

Naming a phase of life—giving it a coherent identity—does more than most people realize to make life, and society, work better. It creates a framework for constructing the pathways, products and policies required to make the most of this period. And so it should be with the new chapter taking shape between, roughly, ages 55 and 75.

Consider: One hundred years ago, we worried about a profusion of young people who were neither children nor adults. In 1904, G. Stanley Hall, the great American psychologist, helped put “adolescence” on the map with his seminal book of that name. Here, then, was a framework around which educators, legislators and entrepreneurs could begin developing new arrangements to make the most of that period.

Today, of course, we take “adolescence” for granted. But the invention of that stage of life acted as a stimulus for, among other breakthroughs, making high-school education widespread and expanding child-labor laws. (Although it did take several decades after Hall’s treatise for the “teenage” label to become ubiquitous.)

Let’s realize the same benefits for the new phase taking shape after midlife, starting with the nomenclature. What should we call this emerging period between our middle years and old age? Observers have suggested the “third chapter,” “adulthood II,” even “middlescence.” (Interestingly, G. Stanley Hall was among the first to suggest a new stage between our middle years and old age, describing it, poetically, as an Indian summer.)

Make the transition as easy as possible.

Remember the old rites of passage—the retirement party, the gold watch, the RV trip? As we create a new life chapter beyond midlife, we need to afford people the time and space to move to what’s next.

EN-AB345_GAPcvr_16U_20150526130910

It’s common for young people to have four years of college to navigate the developmental passage from youth to adulthood, and now increasingly we are throwing in gap years before or after. But what about their parents? They’ve been laboring long hours and juggling the responsibilities of family, and are now heading into a stage of life that doesn’t have a name, much less a clear road map. There should be a gap year—or at least a few bridge months—for grown-ups to take a breather and figure out their next steps.

More individuals at this juncture seem to agree. Research from RAND Corp. reveals that a significant segment of the population is already retiring for a year or two, with every intention of returning to work following that respite. In other words, they are using the rubric of retirement to grant themselves a much-needed sabbatical—to take some time to rest up before readying for what comes next.

Still, theirs remains essentially a do-it-yourself process. It’s time to help make this post-midlife passage more efficient and suited to preparing individuals emotionally and spiritually for what lies ahead.

Some promising approaches are starting to emerge. Last fall, Rabbi Laura Geller of Los Angeles brought together a group of area congregations to think about what these new rites of passage might look like in the context of Judaism—observing that her religion’s life markers derive largely from biblical times, when lives were far shorter than today.

One answer: a kind of bar mitzvah for those moving into a new identity beyond midlife but far from the end of life, aimed at helping individuals reset their priorities and develop the right frame of mind for navigating their next phase, with particular focus on questions of leaving a legacy and how they might engage in “tikkun olam,” healing the world.

EN-AB363_GAPjmp_16U_20150526131509

Another faith-infused effort is the Halftime Institute, which blends precepts of Christian faith with ideas from management gurus like Peter Drucker and Jim Collins, to help individuals navigate the passage “from success to significance.” Among other things, the Halftime Institute’s programs help members find their calling through developing “a personal plan for spiritual growth, a life mission statement and a clear action plan.”

Such rites and routes also have a place in our secular lives. I’ll soon be returning for my 35th college reunion, like so many other boomers who were part of the dramatic expansion of higher education in the 1960s and 1970s. Reunions are a tailor-made opportunity to help individuals graduate into the second half of adulthood, using to full advantage their return to a setting associated with new beginnings, a sense of possibility and community.

Already a number of higher-education institutions are offering reunion workshops on the subject of “what’s next.” Others have gone further. Northwestern University conducted a two-part webinar for alumni helping them consider and prepare for second acts aimed at improving prospects for future generations, featuring the accounts of classmates who had navigated that journey.

Design schools for the second half of life.

Nearly 50 years ago, we pioneered lifelong learning for seniors—a notable advance, but let’s face it: All too often these programs are great for mental stimulation but ill-suited to launching individuals into new life chapters. Catching up on the Renaissance masters or mapping your family’s genealogy can take you only so far.

What we need now is school designed for the second half of life, helping people retool to continue to earn an income, maintain a sense of engagement, and adapt to fresh challenges by teaching them new skills and helping them plan their encore careers.

In recent years, two elite universities—Harvard and Stanford—have broken important new ground, introducing yearlong programs to fill these needs. Both involve reflection, learning, interaction with colleagues, and the chance to explore options for a next act of purpose and productivity. Both offer an opportunity to customize an interdisciplinary course of study with an eye to helping students launch second acts as social entrepreneurs or move into new organizational roles drawing on past experience in creative ways.

But this is only a beginning, albeit a promising one.

What’s warranted now is a far more broad-based effort. We need a system of easily accessible and affordable opportunities for all those interested in working beyond traditional retirement age, one that includes more community-college and continuing-education options, and that builds on existing trends in education innovation, including online courses and the competency-based movement to provide credit for experience and learning acquired outside the classroom.

There’s some movement to make that happen: In March, two dozen leaders from across higher education came together at New York University to discuss democratizing and expanding their offerings for individuals moving beyond midlife. If they succeed, these trailblazers might not only further the reinvention of school for the second half of life but rewrite the educational script entirely.

After all, why is it that we load up all our higher education and higher-education spending in life’s first two dozen years, when individuals have so many decades stretching out in front of them? It’s hard to know at 20 what we’ll want or need to know at 50 or 60. That’s why we should develop an approach to learning that allows for multiple opportunities to renew and retrain across the extended life course of the 21st century.

Figure out how to finance the bonus years.

Along with fashioning new kinds of education and career pathways, we should help ensure that Americans are able to pay for them—and for all those years being added to the lifespan.

Financial-services companies could provide a great service through creating and marketing what might be called individual purpose accounts, or IPAs—a kind of 529 savings plan for grown-ups. Such plans could help subsidize the new pathways to un-retirement, funding further education and other learning opportunities. They might also complement individual retirement accounts and related savings vehicles for retirement itself.

Another potentially far-reaching idea: Allow people 50 and older to take a single early year of Social Security to retool for their next career, whether by going back to school or doing an internship, in exchange for working an actuarially adjusted period later before receiving full benefits.

Doing so promises a win-win: helping individuals bolster their finances through working longer, while also enabling society to realize the talent windfall present in the older population, especially in high-growth fields like health care. Some people will earn a robust living, while others will use their new skills in part-time or flexible jobs that fill a financial gap and allow them to delay dipping into retirement funds.

Help the generations come together.

For half a century, we’ve done much to keep young and old apart, especially in the realm of housing. Yet age-segregated housing for retirees runs against the grain of everything we know about healthy development in the post-midlife period, a time when connections with younger generations are linked to higher rates of happiness for older people. What we need instead: housing strategies that help to forge and solidify bonds among the generations.

One compelling example is Bridge Meadows. This housing development in Portland, Ore., brings together families raising foster children with older people of modest means, who receive reduced rents in return for volunteer work with the adoptive families living in the community: everything from baby sitting and playing catch with children to working on arts-and-crafts projects and making meals. It’s an arrangement that makes both economic and common sense, filling the fundamental human need for community and connection.

I’d like to see more housing development animated by that same compelling vision—especially as more families show an interest in moving in together, sometimes with three or four generations residing under the same roof. (A 2011 study by the nonprofit Generations United found that approximately one in six Americans resides in a multigenerational household, a 10% jump since the start of the recession.) We now likewise have an expanding cohort of individuals without children or grandchildren of their own, along with millions who don’t live anywhere near their younger relatives. These individuals might well be drawn to, and benefit from, such intergenerational settings.

While we’re at it, we should create a Legacy Corps: one that recruits millions of older people to be extra “grandparents” for young people in early-learning programs and mentors for children growing up facing tough odds. In essence, it could be a new kind of Peace Corps for the generation that the Peace Corps was designed for in the first place. There’s a healthy dose of self-interest in such an enterprise for the boomers, who will be dependent on these young people as they move into their elderly years.

Get creative people thinking about how to improve our extra years.

Innovations such as those I’ve just described have drawn little attention from investors to date. As a result, most remain small in scale, if not solely in the realm of ideas.

Of 35 grants made by the federal government’s Social Innovation Fund since 2010, only one has directly targeted aging. Philanthropy isn’t doing any better. According to data from the Foundation Center, less than 2% of foundation money—often a powerful lever for social innovation—goes into aging.

But there are promising signs in the U.K., where a new £50 million ($78 million) investment from that country’s Big Lottery Fund is being used to improve the quality of life for older adults, including plans to support innovative initiatives in work, health and community engagement. We would be smart to develop our own version.

Prizes are another great option for attracting talent to tackle the issues surrounding second acts. A $1 million Palo Alto Longevity Prize, with a who’s who of Silicon Valley backing it, has been offered for the next big breakthrough in extending life. Why not use similar vehicles to achieve the same result in social innovation aimed at enriching the later years?

The X Prize, for instance, is aimed at big innovations that benefit mankind. I’d like to see a prize for the innovation that does the most to increase the productivity and contribution of older people to society—especially since the founder of the X Prize Foundation, Peter Diamandis, is co-founder of the Human Longevity Inc. startup (along with genome pioneer J. Craig Venter), aimed at “extending the healthy human lifespan.”

***

Does this agenda sound daunting? Here’s reassuring news. We’ve seen this challenge before—and met it.

In 1961, John F. Kennedy took office eight days after the first White House Conference on Aging. Two years later, President Kennedy gave his most important speech on aging, declaring that America was on the brink of a longevity revolution, filled with promise but marked by a gap: We had added “years to life,” he pronounced; now it was time to add “life to those years.”

In impressively short order, we closed that era’s gap, through first conceiving the idea of leisure-focused “golden years,” then proceeding to make this marketing slogan a cornerstone of the American dream. In a remarkable period of social invention, we fashioned senior centers and retirement communities, Elderhostel (now Road Scholar) and Institutes for Learning in Retirement, Medicare and the Older Americans Act. We not only enriched those later years, but set in motion the conditions that contributed to longer, healthier, more active lives.

Now, as we prepare for the sixth White House Conference on Aging, taking place next month, and as the years added to life continue to trend upward, let’s rise to the occasion again, realizing the true promise of longevity for individuals and for nations.

And let’s do it in time for the onrushing wave of baby boomers—but, most of all, for those young people projected to live even longer. I hope that when they sail by the virtual billboards of tomorrow, propelled by their self-driving cars, they will be greeted not by scary longevity scenarios but by an inviting vision of their own later years.

Mr. Freedman is the founder and chief executive officer of Encore.org, a nonprofit organization working to promote encore careers, and author, most recently, of “The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlife.” He can be reached at encore@wsj.com.

In Palo Alto in the heart of Silicon Valley, hedge fund manager Joon Yun is doing a back-of-the-envelope calculation. According to US social security data, he says, the probability of a 25-year-old dying before their 26th birthday is 0.1%. If we could keep that risk constant throughout life instead of it rising due to age-related disease, the average person would – statistically speaking – live 1,000 years. Yun finds the prospect tantalising and even believable. Late last year he launched a $1m prize challenging scientists to “hack the code of life” and push human lifespan past its apparent maximum of about 120 years (the longest known/confirmed lifespan was 122 years).

Yun believes it is possible to “solve ageing” and get people to live, healthily, more or less indefinitely. His Palo Alto Longevity Prize, which 15 scientific teams have so far entered, will be awarded in the first instance for restoring vitality and extending lifespan in mice by 50%. But Yun has deep pockets and expects to put up more money for progressively greater feats. He says this is a moral rather than personal quest. Our lives and society are troubled by growing numbers of loved ones lost to age-related disease and suffering extended periods of decrepitude, which is costing economies. Yun has an impressive list of nearly 50 advisers, including scientists from some of America’s top universities.

Yun’s quest – a modern version of the age old dream of tapping the fountain of youth – is emblematic of the current enthusiasm to disrupt death sweeping Silicon Valley. Billionaires and companies are bullish about what they can achieve. In September 2013 Google announced the creation of Calico, short for the California Life Company. Its mission is to reverse engineer the biology that controls lifespan and “devise interventions that enable people to lead longer and healthier lives”. Though much mystery surrounds the new biotech company, it seems to be looking in part to develop age-defying drugs. In April 2014 it recruited Cynthia Kenyon, a scientist acclaimed for work that included genetically engineering roundworms to live up to six times longer than normal, and who has spoken of dreaming of applying her discoveries to people. “Calico has the money to do almost anything it wants,” says Tom Johnson, an earlier pioneer of the field now at the University of Colorado who was the first to find a genetic effect on longevity in a worm.

Advertisement

In March 2014, pioneering American biologist and technologist Craig Venter – along with the tech entrepreneur founder of the X Prize Foundation, Peter Diamandis – announced a new company called Human Longevity Inc. It isn’t aimed at developing anti-ageing drugs or competing with Calico, says Venter. But it plans to create a giant database of 1 million human genome sequences by 2020, including from supercentenarians. Venter says that data should shed important new light on what makes for a longer, healthier life, and expects others working on life extension to use his database. “Our approach can help Calico immensely and if their approach is successful it can help me live longer,” explains Venter. “We hope to be the reference centre at the middle of everything.”

In an office not far from Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, with a beard reaching almost to his navel, Aubrey de Grey is enjoying the new buzz about defeating ageing. For more than a decade, he has been on a crusade to inspire the world to embark on a scientific quest to eliminate ageing and extend healthy lifespan indefinitely (he is on the Palo Alto Longevity Prize board). It is a difficult job because he considers the world to be in a “pro-ageing trance”, happy to accept that ageing is unavoidable, when the reality is that it’s simply a “medical problem” that science can solve. Just as a vintage car can be kept in good condition indefinitely with periodic preventative maintenance, so there is no reason why, in principle, the same can’t be true of the human body, thinks de Grey. We are, after all, biological machines, he says.

His claims about the possibilities (he has said the first person who will live to 1,000 years is probably already alive), and some unconventional and unproven ideas about the science behind ageing, have long made de Grey unpopular with mainstream academics studying ageing. But the appearance of Calico and others suggests the world might be coming around to his side, he says. “There is an increasing number of people realising that the concept of anti-ageing medicine that actually works is going to be the biggest industry that ever existed by some huge margin and that it just might be foreseeable.”

Since 2009, de Grey has been chief scientific officer at his own charity, the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (Sens) Research Foundation. Including an annual contribution (about $600,000 a year) from Peter Thiel, a billionaire Silicon Valley venture capitalist, and money from his own inheritance, he funds about $5m of research annually. Some is done in-house, the rest sponsored at outside institutions. (Even his critics say he funds some good science.)

De Grey isn’t the only one who sees a new flowering of anti-ageing research. “Radical life extension isn’t consigned to the realm of cranks and science fiction writers any more,” says David Masci, a researcher at the Pew Research Centre, who recently wrote a report on the topic looking at the scientific and ethical dimensions of radical life extension. “Serious people are doing research in this area and serious thinkers are thinking about this .”

Although funding pledges have been low compared to early hopes, billionaires – not just from the technology industry – have long supported research into the biology of ageing. Yet it has mostly been aimed at extending “healthspan”, the years in which you are free of frailty or disease, rather than lifespan, although an obvious effect is that it would also be extended (healthy people after all live longer).

“If a consequence of increasing health is that life is extended, that’s a good thing, but the most important part is keeping people healthy as long as possible,” says Kevin Lee, a director of the Ellison Medical Foundation, founded in 1997 by tech billionaire Larry Ellison, and which has been the field’s largest private funder, spending $45m annually. (The Paul F Glenn Foundation for Medical Research is another.) Whereas much biomedical research concentrates on trying to cure individual diseases, say cancer, scientists in this small field hunt something larger. They investigate the details of the ageing process with a view to finding ways to prevent it at its root, thereby fending off the whole slew of diseases that come along with ageing. Life expectancy has risen in developed countries from about 47 in 1900 to about 80 today, largely due to advances in curing childhood diseases. But those longer lives come with their share of misery. Age-related chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, stroke and Alzheimer’s are more prevalent than ever.

The standard medical approach – curing one disease at a time – only makes that worse, says Jay Olshansky, a sociologist at the University of Chicago School of Public Health who runs a project called the Longevity Dividend Initiative, which makes the case for funding ageing research to increase healthspan on health and economic grounds. “I would like to see a cure for heart disease or cancer,” he says. “But it would lead to a dramatic escalation in the prevalence of Alzheimer’s

By tackling ageing at the root they could be dealt with as one, reducing frailty and disability by lowering all age-related disease risks simultaneously, says Olshansky. Evidence is now building that this bolder, age-delaying approach could work. Scientists have already successfully intervened in ageing in a variety of animal species and researchers say there is reason to believe it could be achieved in people. “We have really turned a corner,” says Brian Kennedy, director of the Buck Institute for Research on Ageing, adding that five years ago the scientific consensus was that ageing research was interesting but unlikely to lead to anything practical. “We’re now at the point where it’s easy to extend the lifespan of a mouse. That’s not the question any more, it’s can we do this in humans? And I don’t see any reason why we can’t,” says David Sinclair, a researcher based at Harvard.

Reason for optimism comes after several different approaches have yielded promising results. Some existing drugs, such as the diabetes drug metformin, have serendipitously turned out to display age-defying effects, for example. Several drugs are in development that mimic the mechanisms that cause lab animals fed carefully calorie-restricted diets to live longer. Others copy the effects of genes that occur in long-lived people. One drug already in clinical trials is rapamycin, which is normally used to aid organ transplants and treat rare cancers. It has been shown to extend the life of mice by 25%, the greatest achieved so far with a drug, and protect them against diseases of ageing including cancer and neurodegeneration.

A recent clinical trial by Novartis, in healthy elderly volunteers in Australia and New Zealand, found a variant of the drug enhanced their response to flu vaccine by 20% – our immunity to flu being something that declines with old age.

“[This was] the first [trial] to take a drug suspected to slow ageing, and examine whether it slows or reverses a property of ageing in older, healthy individuals,” says Kennedy. Other drugs set to be tested in humans are compounds inspired by resveratrol, a compound found in red wine. Some scientists believe it is behind the “French paradox” that French people have a low incidence of heart disease despite eating comparatively rich diets.

In 2003, Sinclair published evidence that high doses of resveratrol extend the healthy lives of yeast cells. After Sirtris, a company co-founded by Sinclair, showed that resveratrol-inspired compounds had favourable effects in mice, it was bought by drug giant GlaxoSmithKline for $720m in 2008. Although development has proved more complicated than first thought, GSK is planning a large clinical trial this year, says Sinclair. He is now working on another drug that has a different way of activating the same pathway.

One of the more unusual approaches being tested is using blood from the young to reinvigorate the old. The idea was borne out in experiments which showed blood plasma from young mice restored mental capabilities of old mice. A human trial under way is testing whether Alzhemier’s patients who receive blood transfusions from young people experience a similar effect. Tony Wyss-Coray, a researcher at Stanford leading the work, says that if it works he hopes to isolate factors in the blood that drive the effect and then try to make a drug that does a similar thing. (Since publishing his work in mice, many “healthy, very rich people” have contacted Wyss-Coray wondering if it might help them live longer.)

James Kirkland, a researcher who studies ageing at the Mayo Clinic, says he knows of about 20 drugs now – more than six of which had been written up in scientific journals – that extended the lifespan or healthspan of mice. The aim is to begin tests in humans, but clinical studies of ageing are difficult because of the length of our lives, though there are ways around this such as testing the drugs against single conditions in elderly patients and looking for signs of improvements in other conditions at the same time. Quite what the first drug will be, and what it will do, is unclear. Ideally, you might take a single pill that would delay ageing in every part of your body. But Kennedy notes that in mice treated with rapamycin, some age-related effects, such as cataracts, don’t slow down. “I don’t know any one drug is going to do everything,” he says. As to when you might begin treatment, Kennedy imagines that in future you could start treatment sometime between the age of 40 and 50 “because it keeps you healthy 10 years longer”.

With treatments at such an early stage, guesses as to when they might arrive or how far they will stretch human longevity can only be that. Many researchers refuse to speculate. But Kirkland says the informal ambition in his field is to increase healthspan by two to three years in the next decade or more. (The EU has an official goal of adding two years to healthspan by 2020). Beyond that, what effects these drugs might have on extending our healthy lives is even harder to predict. A recent report by UK Human Longevity Panel, a body of scientists convened by insurer Legal and General, based on interviews with leading figures in the field, said: “There was disagreement about how far the maximum lifespan could increase, with some experts believing that there was a maximum threshold that could not be stretched much more than the current 120 years or so, and others believing that there was no limit.”

Nir Barzilai, director of the Institute for Ageing Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, is one of the pessimists. “Based on the biology that we know today, somewhere between 100 and 120 there is a roof in play and I challenge if we can get beyond it.” Venter is one of the optimists. “I don’t see any absolute biological limit on human age,” he says, arguing that cellular immortality – in effect running the clock backwards – should be possible. “We can expect biological processes to eventually get rid of years. Whether this will happen this century or not, I can’t tell you”. Such ideas are just speculation for now. But John Troyer, who studies death and technology at the Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath, says we need to take them seriously. “You want to think about it now before you are in the middle of an enormous mess.”

What happens if we all live to 100, 110, 120 or beyond? Society will start to look very different. “People working and living longer might make it more difficult for a new generation to get into the labour force or find houses,” says Troyer. And, with ageing delayed, how many children are we talking about as being a normal family? “There is a very strong likelihood there would be an impact on things like family structures.” A 2003 American president’s Council on Bioethics report looked at some of these issues suggesting there may be repercussions for individual psychology, too.

One of the “virtues of mortality” it pointed out is that it may instill a desire to make each day count. Would knowing you had longer to live decrease your willingness to make the most of life? De Grey acknowledges potential practical challenges but cheerily says society would adapt, for example by having fewer children, and with people able to decide when to end their lives. There are pressing questions too about who would benefit if and when these interventions become available. Will it just be the super rich or will market incentives – who wouldn’t want it? – push costs down and make treatment affordable?

Will Britain’s NHS or health insurers in other countries pay for drugs that extend peoples lives? The medical cost of caring for people in their twilight years would fall if they remained healthier longer, but delayed ageing will also mean more people draw pensions and state benefits. But advocates say these challenges don’t negate the moral imperative. If the period of healthy life can be extended, then doing so is the humanitarian thing to do, says Nick Bostrom, director of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute. “There seems to be no moral argument not to,” he says. Troyer agrees but asks whether living longer does necessarily mean you will be healthier – what does “healthy” or “healthier” mean in this context? he asks.

The far future aside, there are challenges for the new tech entrants. Calico may get too side-tracked by basic research, worries de Grey; Venter’s approach may take years to bear fruit because of issues about data gathering, thinks Barzilai; while the money on offer from the Palo Alto prize is a paltry sum for the demanded outcome and potential societal impact, says Johnson. Still, history reminds us, even if they don’t succeed, we may still benefit.

Aviator Charles Lindbergh tried to cheat death by devising ways to replace human organs with machines. He didn’t succeed, but one of his contraptions did develop into the heart-lung machine so crucial for open-heart surgery. In the quest to defeat ageing, even the fruits of failure may be bountiful.

Tech billionaires who want to make death an elective
Why might tech zillionaires choose to fund life extension research? Three reasons reckons Patrick McCray, a historian of modern technology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. First, if you had that much money wouldn’t you want to live longer to enjoy it? Then there is money to be made in them there hills. But last, and what he thinks is the heart of the matter, is ideology. If your business and social world is oriented around the premise of “disruptive technologies”, what could be more disruptive than slowing down or “defeating” ageing? “Coupled to this is the idea that if you have made your billions in an industrial sector that is based on precise careful control of 0s and 1s, why not imagine you could extend this to the control of atoms and molecules?,” he says.

Peter Thiel
Peter Thiel, 47, PayPal co-founder and Facebook’s first investor, recently told Bloomberg Television he took human growth hormone (HGH) as part of his regime to reach 120 (there is no evidence it works and it can even cause harm). He also follows a Paleo diet, doesn’t eat sugar, drinks red wine and runs regularly. He has given more than $6m to Aubrey de Grey’s Sens Foundation, dedicated to extending the human lifespan. In a recent interview he identified three main ways to approach death. “You can accept it, you can deny it or you can fight it. I think our society is dominated by people who are into denial or acceptance, and I prefer to fight it.”

Sergey Brin
Google co-founder Sergey Brin, 41, is known for his love of special projects like Google Glass and CEO Larry Page has credited him for helping bring its new biotech company Calico to fruition. “We’re tackling ageing, one of life’s greatest mysteries,” says the website of the research and development company launched in 2013 and which in September 2014 joined with biopharmaceutical firm AbbVie to pour up to $1.5bn into a research facility focused on fighting age-related diseases. An extra reason for Brin’s interest may be that he discovered in 2008 he carries a genetic mutation that gives him a greater likelihood of developing Parkinson’s disease. Bryn’s wife is co-founder of personal genomics company 23andMe.

Larry Ellison
Larry Ellison, co-founder of computer company Oracle, told his biographer Mark Wilson. “How can a person be there and then just vanish, just not be there?” Ellison, 70, created the the Ellison Medical Foundation in 1997 to support ageing research and has spent more than $335m in the area, though it announced in 2013 that it would no longer fund further grants in the area. Ellison remains tight lipped about why, but there are reports that, with the emergence of Calico, he felt that he’d done his bit.

Craig Venter
“A lot of people spend their last decade of their lives in pain and misery combating disease,” says Craig Venter, San Diego based pioneering biologist and billionaire entrepreneur who raced to sequence the human genome. “I think it is possible to begin to do more about that than we are doing.” Venter, 68, announced his new company, Human Longevity, to promote healthy ageing using advances in genomics and stem cell therapies in March 2014. Would Venter like to beat death? “I am not sure our brains and our psychologies are ready for immortality,” he says. “[But] if I can count on living to 100 without major debilitating diseases I would accept that Faustian bargain right now.”

Dmitry Itskov
A digital copy of your brain turned into a low-cost, lifelike avatar, which doesn’t age. That’s the vision of Dmitry Itskov, a thirtysomething Russian multi-millionaire internet mogul who founded an online media company New Media Stars. His 2045 Initiative, so-called for the year he hopes to complete it, aims to “create technologies enabling the transfer of a individual’s personality to a more advanced non-biological carrier, and extending life, including to the point of immortality”. Though not from Silicon Valley himself, his ideas draw on those of Ray Kurzweil, a prominent futurist, who is director of engineering at Google. Kurzweil has predicted that scientists will one day find a way to download human consciousness, no longer necessitating the need for our bodies.

tech-titans-latest-project

Seated at the head of a table for 12 with a view of the city’s soaring skyline, Peter Thiel was deep in conversation with his guests, eclectic scientists whose research was considered radical, even heretical.

It was 2004 and Thiel had recently made a tidy fortune selling PayPal, which he co-founded, to eBay. He had spent what he wanted on himself — a posh penthouse suite at the Four Seasons Hotel and a silver Ferrari — and was now soliciting ideas to do good with his money.

The Human Upgrade:
Using their ideas and their billions, the visionaries who created Silicon Valley’s biggest technology firms are trying to transform the most complicated system in existence: the human body.
Click to read Part II: The revolution will be digitized
Illustration by Sébastien Thibault
Among the guests was Cynthia Kenyon, a molecular biologist and biogerontologist who had garnered attention for doubling the life span of a roundworm by disabling a single gene. Aubrey de Grey, a British computer scientist turned theoretician who prophesied that medical advances would stop aging. And Larry Page, co-founder of an Internet search darling called Google that had big ideas to improve health through the terabytes of data it was collecting.

The chatter at the dinner party meandered from the value of chocolate in one’s diet to the toll of disease on the U.S. economy to the merits of uploading people’s memories to a computer versus cryofreezing their bodies. Yet the focus kept returning to one subject: Was death an inevitability — or a solvable problem?

A number of guests were skeptical about achieving immortality. But could science and technology help us live longer, to, say, 150 years? Now that, they agreed, was a worthy goal.

Within a few months, Thiel had written checks to Kenyon and de Grey to accelerate their work. Since then he has doled out millions to other researchers with what he calls “breakout” ideas that defy conventional wisdom.

“If you think you can only do very little and be very incremental, then you’ll work only on very incremental things. It’s self-fulfilling,” Thiel, who is 47 and estimated to be worth $2.2 billion, said in an interview. “It’s those who have an optimism about what can be done that will shape the future.”

He and the tech titans who founded Google, Facebook, eBay, Napster and Netscape are using their billions to rewrite the nation’s science agenda and transform biomedical research. Their objective is to use the tools of technology — the chips, software programs, algorithms and big data they used in creating an information revolution — to understand and upgrade what they consider to be the most complicated piece of machinery in existence: the human body.

The entrepreneurs are driven by a certitude that rebuilding, regenerating and reprogramming patients’ organs, limbs, cells and DNA will enable people to live longer and better. The work they are funding includes hunting for the secrets of living organisms with insanely long lives, engineering microscopic nanobots that can fix your body from the inside out, figuring out how to reprogram the DNA you were born with, and exploring ways to digitize your brain based on the theory that your mind could live long after your body expires.

“I believe that evolution is a true account of nature,” as Thiel put it. “But I think we should try to escape it or transcend it in our society.”

Professor Douglas Melton begins with a look at the basis for regenerative medicine, the human body’s ability to divide, grow, and specialize cells. With a solid foothold in developmental biology, we see how this knowledge led to the breakthrough cloning experiments we’re all familiar with: Hello, Dolly! Next, we’re introduced to the science of stem cells and their greatest hope: new “man-made” stem cells that could soon be used to reverse incurable degenerative diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s. Lastly, Professor Melton tells how these same stem cells may be the keys that unlock an end to aging as we know it.

Researchers plan to test a pill to prevent or delay Alzheimer’s, heart disease and other ailments that come with age

banner