Advances in technology mean life expectancy is growing rapidly – but are we all prepared for how living to 150 will transform and challenge society?
When people talk about longevity, they tend to focus on the exciting scientific and social side of things – technologies that enable people to live to 150 or even 250. Multiple careers. Families with eight living generations. But what about the business side of things? What is it like to be working in the longevity field, and what are the prospects for longevity businesses?
Juvenescence is a global biotech company that develops therapies to treat diseases of ageing and increase human longevity. Dr Greg Bailey, its CEO and co-founder, says he sees the commercial opportunities as being largely in improving old age.
Increasing your ’healthspan’
“We are less concerned about increasing your lifespan than we are about improving your health.” The point, he continues, is to increase your ‘healthspan’ – your healthy lifespan. The average lifespan in the developed world has increased enormously in recent decades, but the average healthy lifespan has not. In fact, in many countries it is decreasing. We live longer, but with more years of ill health.
“Nobody wants to live to 120 if for the last 60 years of that you are in a wheelchair or have Alzheimer’s,” Bailey says. “So the question we’re asking at Juvenescence is: how do you live healthily? How long would you like to live if you were healthy – if you had the anatomy and physiology of when you were 25?” Huge leaps in longevity technologies are happening now, he adds. We are learning about the genes that control ageing and how to manipulate them, we are learning to regenerate tissue, and we are developing better drugs. “This is going to take place so much faster than people think.” We are, he believes, at an inflection point.
Accelerating technological development through investments
He means this in a business sense too. “For the first time, people are recognising that this is real and capital is beginning to flow into this sector – and the more money that flows into the sector the faster the technologies are going to develop. If anyone had told me that we would raise USD 168 million in two years, I would have said you were crazy – that it just doesn’t happen in biotech for early-stage assets.”
This feeling of change in the sector has been helped by well-known individuals ranging from serial entrepreneur Peter Thiel to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos either investing in longevity-related businesses or making significant donations to research foundations. As Bailey says, “This is going to come as a big surprise, but ultra-high-net-worth individuals want to live longer – who’d have thought it?”
Juvenescence’s own investors include everyone from family offices to financial institutions; there are roughly 120 in total. Although a doctor by training, Bailey has a long track record in the industry. This is his fourth senior biotech company. Others include Medivation, which was bought by Pfizer for USD 14 billion, and Biohaven, which trades on the New York Stock Exchange and currently has a market capitalisation of more than USD 4 billion.
The predictions for what an extended lifespan might entail vary hugely
At the moment, the world’s longest lived outliers max out at just over 120. But change is coming. Professor Sarah Harper of Oxford University recently said that a baby born today would be looking at an expected lifespan of 104 years.
We are also seeing increasing gains in lifespan, the coronavirus notwithstanding. Between 2000 and 2016, according to the World Health Organization, global expectancy rose by 5.5 years – the greatest increase since the 1960s. This opens up a tantalising prospect; that the rate of medical advance means that if you can make it to, say, 2050, you may be able to live more or less indefinitely. The biomedical theorist Aubrey de Grey has suggested that some people already born will live for up to 1,000 years.
“I disagree with Aubrey,” says Bailey. “But I think 120 to 150 is on the cards for most people and that means we have to sort out things like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and arthritis or it’s not going to be viable. Right now, we’re working on the prevention of Alzheimer’s because I think that’s more likely to be successful than treatment.” Alzheimer’s, he adds, is a difficult one because it has multiple causes, so a cure or treatment for arthritis is likely to be found earlier.
Juvenescence, however, is not just about the type of medicine found in hospitals. “Juvenescence is pursuing standard pharmaceutical products and IP-protected supplements or medical foods based on rigorous science,” explains Bailey. “We have a division that is creating young stem cells frozen in a simple syringe that could be used for someone who damages their lungs or for spinal cord regeneration, but we will also sell products that are validated scientifically to protect your brain or your heart, for example, directly to consumers.” However, he adds, the science behind these supplements will be based on proper placebo-controlled clinical trials. “Our reputation is everything. We would pull a product if we found out the science wasn’t strong, even if it was making GBP 100 million a year.”
What about the social implications of all this ageing?
There’s a perception – perhaps aided by the interest of Silicon Valley billionaires in this area – that longevity is a luxury good. In fact, this is unlikely to be the choice. “My first company made a prostate cancer drug, and 240,000 men in Europe will get prostate cancer – but 400 million Europeans are going to age, so it’s a completely different proposition,” says Bailey. “If the drug can be made for 5 pence, I don’t need to charge more than a pound because the patient population who can afford a pound a day is probably a billion people globally, which of course would translate to USD 365 billion per year, thus the Bank of America number. But it will not be one drug; it will be a cocktail, probably unique to that patient or person.”
The sheer breadth of what ageing and longevity cover is often surprising, too. “We licensed a new technology out of a university in January and it’s based on the fact that if you’re under the age of seven and you lose the tip of your finger, in a significant number of cases it will spontaneously regrow,” says Bailey. “I think in perhaps 10 years’ time, we will have unravelled this ability to turn on the switch in the body that allows you to regrow a limb or an organ.”
The possibility this holds out is of people over 100 living as if they are much younger because their worn-out parts, such as kidneys, have been replaced. These parts will also be ‘young’ – you will be getting a one-day-old kidney even if you are 80. Humans, like cars, would be able to run indefinitely as long as spares were available.
“Science fiction has become today’s science”
As for the wider business implications of millions of healthy centenarians, these are almost limitless. It will affect everything from human reproduction and pensions to property and food production. “The key takeaway from this is that what we have all thought of as crazy science fiction is happening now: science fiction has become today’s science,” says Bailey. “It’s going to have a huge impact on a variety of industries, people’s lives, and government policy – all in all it’s going to be very disruptive but equally incredibly exciting.”