Health Care

Silicon Valley's Newest Venture Is The Search For Immortality

Futurists at some of the biggest tech firms want to reshape the way we think about death.

Silicon Valley's Newest Venture Is The Search For Immortality
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Humans have been obsessed with immortality for ... well, forever. 

Emperors in Imperial China died from drinking mercury-based potions for eternal life. 

The story goes that Pope Innocent VIII was given the blood of three 10-year-old boys to fend off impending death. It didn't work. 

Legend has it Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon was determined to find the "Fountain of Youth." He failed. 

Now, Silicon Valley titans are joining the age-old quest. They're betting that billions of dollars and big brains can delay death — maybe even make it optional.

Larry Ellison, Oracle co-founder, donated $370 million to anti-aging research. And investors like PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel and Amazon's Jeff Bezos helped raise $116 million for a company that's "developing medicines that potentially halt, slow or reverse age-associated diseases."

Most longevity scientists in Silicon Valley are "healthspanners." That means they want people to have longer, healthier lives, not transmorph into Methuselah. But some innovators are thinking much longer-term — maybe 1,000 years.

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The Silicon Valley mindset combines biology and engineering: The body is a machine to be hacked and improved. 

Here is a closer look at three of the efforts: 

Unity Biotechnology wants to eliminate something called senescent cells with drugs known as senolytics. As we get older, cells get damaged and become senescent, a state that stops them from dividing. Unity's premier product, UBX0101, has shown that it kills degraded cells, and related studies in mice show that elimination can increase the average lifespan by more than 24 percent. 

Ambrosia wants to fight aging by giving older patients young people's plasma. Blood in older people carries fewer and fewer cells that instruct organs to repair themselves. But for $8,000, Ambrosia patients can get 1.5 liters of plasma from a donor between 16 and 25 years old. Results from early trials haven't been made public. (For what it's worth, this was the same idea Pope Innocent VIII had, but he drank it instead of injecting it.)

Calico, or California Life Company, the offspring of Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, is looking to nature for 21st century treatments. The company has published several high-profile reports, including one on naked mole rats. The rats almost never get cancer and do not become more likely to die as they get old. 

But if the research doesn't pay off in time, at least two bold names in Silicon Valley have a Plan 2.0. Ray Kurzweil and Aubrey de Grey — Google's chief futurist and the chief science officer at Sens Research Foundation, respectively — want to go full "Austin Powers": frozen in liquid nitrogen, stored in a tank, and only thawed out once science finds — or creates — that elusive fountain of youth.