There's no denying it: America is getting old. By 2030, the number of Americans older than 65 will have grown by 75 percent to 69 million, and 20 percent of the population will be older than 65—compared with only 13 percent today.
But what if "getting old" wasn't really "getting old?" What if aging—at least the physical deteriorations that accompany it—was something that could be prevented? It's a lofty idea, but it's one that a new breed of biotech start-ups, scientists, and prominent investors are beginning to tackle.
Peter Thiel is one of those investors. Thiel, the idiosyncratic Facebook investor and PayPal founder who recently paid 20 kids to drop out of college and start companies, was the subject of a recent profile in The New Yorker that dissected a number Thiel's quirks, including his ardent libertarianism and his aversion to seatbelts, and, perhaps most outstandingly, his belief that with the right investments, he might just be able to escape death. Back in 2006, Thiel gave Cambridge anti-aging researcher Aubrey de Grey $3.5 million under the auspices of the Methusaleh Foundation, a non-profit headquartered in Springfield, Virgina, that awards scientists who are working on life-extension therapies. "Probably the most extreme form of inequality is between people who are alive and people who are dead," Thiel told The New Yorker.
In 2010, Thiel and his partners at Founders Fund, a Bay Area venture capital firm, invested $500,000 in Halcyon Molecular, a biotech start-up whose 28-year-old founder has a "dream to create a world free from cancer and aging."
To understand the fund's investment, you have to appreciate what Founders Fund is—or, more specifically, what it is not.
"These are not guys who care about an extra million dollars," says Brian Singerman, a partner at Founders Fund along with Thiel. "These are guys who wanted to do something amazing for the world."
Singerman, an early employee at Google who founded the iGoogle team, came to Founders Fund after having what he describes as an "epic six hour epic dinner with Sean Parker." Parker, an executive general partner in the firm, recruited Singerman shortly after.
Equal parts brilliant and idealistic, Singerman is adamant that aging is a problem that can be solved. The fund's portfolio has invested in about 14 health and biotech companies all interested in solving life's ultimate problem: death.
"We have a company that's charged with curing all viral disease, we have a company that's charged with curing several types of cancer," he says. "These are not things that are incremental approaches. It's all fine and good to have a drug that extends life by a certain amount of months or makes living with a disease easier. That's not what we're looking for. We are not looking for incremental change. We are looking for absolute cures in anything we do."
Singerman, who graduated from Stanford, believes there are two basic elements of curing aging: first, you have to cure the stuff that kills you. The second part, of course, is figuring out the processes by which the body deteriorates. Finding complete, fast, and cheap DNA sequencing methods are a main focus of the fund.
"I'm not going to say we're going to cure aging before next week," he says. "That's just silly. But do I think that within the next 10 years we'll have the cure for several forms of cancer? I absolutely do. Do I think that in the next 10 years all forms of viral disease will be wiped out? Absolutely, we have a shot. Do I think that we're going to stop the aging process within the next 10 years? No, but do I think we'll have a much better understanding of how to get to that point? Absolutely."
Singerman is not alone in his quest for immortality.
Gregory Bonafiglio, the co-founder and managing partner of Proteus Venture Partners, says the baby-boom generation is having a profound impact on the market, especially when it comes to regenerative medicine.
"When you talk about anti-aging, what I hear, and what a lot of people hear, are aesthetic things like wrinkle creams and hair re-growth," Bonafiglio says. "The truth of the matter, though, is that the process of aging is one that involves significant deterioration of all organ systems. Whether it's Parkinson's or Alzheimer's, all of these things are related to the aging process. And as the demographic in the U.S. begins to age, that's a major force that's driving the market for the field."
Proteus, which has partners located in Boston, Cambridge, and Silicon Valley, has gone so far as to call regenerative medicine and anti-aging the "Internet of healthcare," meaning it's poised for some historic investment boom. The firm, which focuses its investments in regenerative medicine, invests solely in start-ups that are working on cell therapy and tissue engineering, targeting conditions such as prostate cancer, cardiovascular disease, bone regrowth, and skin repair.
By its calculations, the current market for regenerative medicine is about $1.6 billion. But by the year 2025, they predict that number may surge to about $20 billion. Likewise, revenue generated from regenerative medicine start-ups generated some $130 million in 2001—by 2010 it has ballooned to more than $1.5 billion in revenue. The company also notes that there are about 400 regenerative products on the market today, and 600 more in development. Bonafigli, who sits on a number of scientific research boards including the International Society for Stem Cell Research and the International Society for Cellular Therapy, says the amount of clinical activity in this field has exploded in the last five years. "The entire field is growing," he says.
Politicians are beginning to see this need, too. In May, H.R. 1862: Regenerative Medicine Promotion Act of 2011 was introduced into Congress, receiving cross-party support. The bill aims to make it easier for both researchers and private biotech companies to raise funding for research. The bill would help companies like Sierra Sciences, a biotechnology company based in Reno, Nevada, where researchers have been working on "shutting off the cellular-aging clock," the telomere. (Their motto is "Cure aging—or die trying.") It would also help academics, who have recorded some astonishing breakthroughs as well, especially in the fields of regenerative medicine. Simon Melov and researchers at the Buck Institute, the first independent biomedical research institute in the United States, extended the life of a worm by 44 percent with a regimen of drugs. Stephen Helfand, now a researcher at Brown University, was able to isolate a gene in a fruit fly, alter it, and breed a line of flies that lived twice as long as the common fruit fly.
David Gobel, who founded the Methusaleh Foundation in 2003, says, he started the foundation to address a basic concern: improving, if not extending, human life. But even just 12 years ago, there was resistance to this idea.
"When we started this effort, the idea of extending the healthy human lifespan, was 'Ponce de Leon' and 'Fountain of Youth,'" he jokes. The biggest problem, he says, was that scientists were hesitant to come out in public to say that something could be done to cure aging. "The moment they said something like that, they'd be labeled as quacks."
But over time—and in part due to progress made by biotech start-ups over the last decade—things have changed. Gobel likes to credit the Methusaleh Prize with encouraging the "serious scientists" to come out of the woodwork and begin work on anti-aging projects. The scientists don't assert that they knew how to fix the problem of aging, Gobel says, but they were emboldened to step up and argue that aging is merely an engineering problem that could potentially be solved.
"Now it's no longer a career-ending conversation; it's now a fundable conversation, especially in the area of regenerative medicine," he says.
David Kekich is the founder and CEO of Maximum Life Foundation, a non-profit that hopes to reverse the human aging process—a la The Curious Case of Benjamin Button—by 2033. Ten years ago, Kekich organized one of the first "anti-aging" conferences, pulling together scientists that are developing technology one day that will not only be able to halt aging, but also to reverse it.
"Will I realize my dreams? I really don't know," Kekich writes on his company's blog. "But I do know incidents like paralysis and suffering and most of the ravages of aging will be things of the past one of these days. And I do believe we have a fighting chance to reap the benefits of those "miracles" in our lifetimes. I also believe the worst thing that will happen from this project is, we'll add some healthy years to our lives and will make small fortunes in the process."