Life Extension Magazine October 2015
Billionaire Philanthropists Funding Anti Aging Research
By Michael Downey
Some ultra-wealthy individuals are financially supporting projects that seek to discover ways to slow and reverse aging.
Additionally, there are a few governments in a financial position to fund anti-aging research, as are some well-capitalized and philanthropic organizations around the globe.
The financing of age-reversal research by a handful of forward-thinking billionaires is a recent phenomenon. It could help unlock crucial longevity technology that will benefit all of humanity.
Forty years ago, Paul Allen and Bill Gates co-founded Microsoft.2 Today, Allen’s net worth is $17.5 billion,3,4 and Gates’ worth is $79.2 billion5—the world’s highest.
Allen donated $100 million to establish the Allen Institute for Cell Science, which models the complex mechanisms of living cells.6 Predictive models of the cell could accelerate the development of treatments for age-related diseases, and, conceivably, for aging itself. Allen is not the only billionaire whose donations might—at least indirectly—affect life span. But such philanthropists are extremely rare.
Gates, by contrast, donated a stunning $28 billion—280 times as much—to a foundation that he and his wife control.7 However, this wealthiest of all of the world’s charitable foundations, with assets exceeding $42.3 billion,8 donates almost nothing to initiatives aimed at slowing the fundamental aging process.
Even Allen’s $100 million donation to cell science is dwarfed by his 20-times-larger charitable donations of $2 billion to promote initiatives other than those directly related to slowing biological aging.9
Visionary billionaires such as Allen who donate to aging-related research—despite their much greater philanthropy in other areas—are still very much bucking the norm.
However—rare or not—these donations help offset a virtual absence of government spending in this area.
Only $3 Billion Needed To Find A Way To Slow Aging!
Out of its total annual budget—about $31 billion—the National Institutes of Health (NIH) allocates a mere 3.7% for the government agency charged with studying aging, the National Institute on Aging (NIA).10
Out of that 3.7%, the NIA spends 71%—just $819 million—on research project grants.11 And these research projects typically do not focus on life span-extension research.11
Shouldn’t the goal of the NIA be slowing down aging itself?12
Here’s what is the most frustrating: The total research cost of finding a way to slow the basic process of biological aging has been estimated to be a mere $3 billion—about 3% of the annual Medicare budget.13
Obviously, delaying the aging process would exponentially pay for itself in reduced health care costs!13
Most Billionaire Charities Ignore Aging Research
Funding a relatively small annual investment of $3 billion to defeat aging—even if required for only a few years13—seems daunting without government interest. Hope turns to wealthy individuals who may recognize the benefit for all humans and step forward with research dollars. But is that happening?
There is a vast outpouring of philanthropy from the ultra-rich, many of whom have pledged to pass all of their fortunes to charitable foundations after their death. However, the favored charities seldom include longevity research.
Some billionaires donate half their wealth to various causes that most frequently have little to do with aging research.14 Bill and Melinda Gates have asked the world’s billionaires to sign the Giving Pledge, a commitment to donate at least 50% of their fortunes to charities. Signatories include filmmaker George Lucas, hotel mogul Barron Hilton, and oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens, among many others.14
But very little of this money is likely to fund anti-aging studies.
When large donations do go to health research, they’re generally earmarked for a single disease or a single hospital. However, it’s critically important to understand the comparative benefits of curing all diseases versus the much greater benefits of anti-aging research. By meaningfully reversing pathological aging processes, it will be possible to virtually eradicate all degenerative diseases.
Why Slowing Aging Is More Important Than Disease-Specific Research
A complete cure for all cancers would increase overall human life expectancy by about three years.15
By contrast, an October 2013 study estimated that even very modest, early gains in slowing biological aging would have tremendous impact. Mild age-retarding advances could decrease the incidence of diseases associated with aging by so much that a 51-year-old individual would gain over double the number of healthy years compared to even the most optimistic advances against a whole range of individual disorders, such as cancer or heart disease.16
This study found that investing in delaying aging would increase the number of healthy adults over age 65 by more than 11 million by 2060—while investing in cures for the various diseases of aging would have an effect barely better than doing nothing at all!16
Here’s where we stand. Donations towards specific diseases will only have a minor effect on our future life span—or even health span. A mere $3 billion annually is needed to discover how to slow biological aging. And there are 1,826 billionaires worldwide; the vast majority of whom make huge charitable donations. But the tragic truth? You can count on your fingers the world’s billionaires who recognize the value to the health of all mankind of funding anti-aging research.
The Few Billionaires Who “Get It”
Peter Thiel: PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel17 funneled several million dollars into longevity research.18 His donations are targeted towards funding an organization poised to make the very most of it, such as the dynamic SENS Research Foundation.17,20
Pioneer biomedical gerontologist Aubrey de Grey—a Life Extension® Scientific Advisory Board member—serves as Chief Science Officer for SENS, which stands for Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence.19 SENS research focuses on proposed techniques to rejuvenate the human body—with the ambitious, long-range goal of reversing biological aging.
Thiel explained his SENS donation this way: “I believe that [de Grey’s] revolutionary approach to aging research will accelerate [longevity], allowing many people alive today to enjoy radically longer and healthier lives.”20
Thiel believes the FDA is too restrictive, pharmaceutical companies are ridiculously bureaucratic, and only “a tiny fraction of a fraction of a fraction of National Institutes of Health (NIH) spending” goes to genuine anti-aging research.21 Even then, NIH grant-making decisions are consensus-oriented, committee-approved, and highly conservative in bias.
“If it’s natural for your teeth to start falling out, then you shouldn’t get cavities replaced,” he asks. “In the 19th century, people made the argument that it was natural for childbirth to be painful for women and therefore you shouldn’t have pain medication.18
“I think the nature argument tends to go very wrong. I think it is against human nature not to fight death.”18
Dmitry Itskov: The research project planned by Russian media mogul Dmitry Itskov is quite forward-looking. It smacks of science fiction. Itskov scoffs at the often-published claim that he’s a billionaire and this project is not properly a charity: He plans one day to turn a profit for future investors.22
Serving more as an organizer, Itskov hopes to interest other billionaires in the 2045 Initiative—named for the target completion date—that will investigate the possibility of transferring the entire content of an individual’s brain into a low-cost synthetic brain. He has invested $3 million in expenses so far.23
As ambitious as it sounds, Itskov envisions a digital copy of your mind held within a nonbiological carrier—mass produced, then uploaded with your consciousness and personality.24 The avatar head would even mimic your normal facial expressions.
So forget slowing your body’s aging process: Itskov hopes to replace the human body with a completely artificial one. Occasionally, he’ll even mention the term “immortality.”
Itskov hopes to attract an international collaboration of scientists.24 He maintains that avatars would not only end world hunger—machines need maintenance but not food—but would also usher in a peaceful era without the petty anxieties of day-to-day living that result from having a brief life span.23
First, he has to convince skeptical wealthy investors that this is feasible and that—since the plan is for the investors themselves to become the first artificial humans—that it’s also desirable.22-24
At the Exponential Finance conference held in early June 2015, Ray Kurzweil predicted this kind of brain backup (uploading) into computers will occur around year 2042. Kurzweil’s track record for predicting future technological advances is over 80%, which is one reason he now works full-time at Google. He elaborated on his vision for how this will unfold.
“In the mid-2030s, we will extend our neocortex (the part of the brain where we do our thinking) into the cloud, the same way your phone can multiply its capabilities 1,000-fold today by communicating wirelessly to the cloud. Thus our thinking will become a hybrid of biological and nonbiological thinking. In accordance with Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns, the nonbiological part (in the cloud) will grow exponentially. So by the 2040s, it will be smart enough to completely model and simulate the biological portion. Thus we will be able to fully back ourselves up.”
J. Craig Venter: J. Craig Venter is a billionaire scientist who has raised $70 million by selling shares to launch his latest project. Human Longevity Inc. (HLI)33 is an ambitious commercial venture to amass and electronically analyze the medical, genomic, microbiomic, and metabolic data34 of 40,000 individuals every year—eventually, 100,000 individuals a year35—taken from people who are healthy and sick, infants to centenarians.34 The company will also sequence their microbiomes—the microbes living on and in them. Sequencing the genomes of so many diverse people is expected to tease out anti-aging insights by identifying biological patterns. Then, Venter hopes to harness stem cells as the regenerative engine of the body. The initial focus will be on cancer, but anticancer patterns might reveal ways to block the complex interactions that trigger other age-related diseases—and theoretically, even aging.36,37 Venter’s researchers were the first to recreate, with bottled chemicals, the entire genetic code of one species of bacterium and transplant that manmade genome into the housing of a closely related species of bacterium. Expressed differently, Venter’s team created what could be called the very first synthetic living creature.38
Sergey Brin: Google co-founder Sergey Brin has a genetic mutation that sharply raises his risk for Parkinson’s. He believes that bringing together people with similar gene mutations can help scientists to understand numerous age-related diseases—including Parkinson’s. In hopes of revealing these genetic underpinnings, Brin, worth $28.9 billion,39 has donated nearly $125 million to the Michael J. Fox Foundation and $7 million to the Parkinson’s Institute.40
One project is being conducted by 23andMe, co-founded by Brin’s separated wife, Anne Wojcicki.41 The firm scans the DNA submitted by its customers and provides information on their genetic diversity, ancestry, and other traits. Brin hopes to use this service—and its growing DNA database—to conduct medical research. The company will recruit 10,000 Parkinson’s patients. By comparing—at 600,000 locations across the genome—these patients’ DNA with the DNA of healthy controls, Brin hopes researchers will find genetic variations, beyond those already known, that are linked to the disease.42,43
More relevant to fighting aging, Brin, Wojcicki, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and Zuckerberg’s wife Priscilla Chan, joined with others to create Breakthrough Prizes, which provides funding for scientists who make discoveries that extend human life. Although these are relatively modest $3 million payouts, they are given to six scientists each year.44
David Koch: While not donating to anti-aging research specifically, David Koch has donated a vast fortune—over $400 million to date45 and $150 million over the coming years46—to numerous institutions involved in cancer research and therapy. From his $43 billion net worth,47 his biggest donations go towards “moon shot” campaigns to find a cancer cure. Koch also donated over $150 million to the arts and education.48,49
Google Co-Founders: With its mysterious September 2013 announcement of a new biotechnology company named Calico, Google has ventured into territory far removed from Internet search.
The search, email, and tech company is being highly secretive, revealing only that this venture will focus “in particular on the challenge of aging and associated diseases.”25 But the biggest clue came from Calico CEO, Dr. Arthur Levinson, PhD,26,27 who said that when he was asked to head Calico, “I was deeply intrigued. For example, what underlies aging? Might there be a direct link between certain diseases and the aging process?”28,29
Since then, Calico has entered into a joint venture30 with the pharmaceutical company AbbVie to build a new research facility to investigate age-related diseases, including neurodegeneration.31,32
Longevity research might now benefit greatly from the typical Silicon Valley worldview that everything—even death—is solvable if you reduce it to data and then, throw enough processing power at it.
Medicine is already on its way to becoming an information science: Researchers can now harvest and mine massive patient data sets. And Google is very good with large data sets.
Google won’t divulge how much money was invested in Calico but hinted it could be tens of millions.
Ideally, inspired by Google, more billionaires might realize that the most charitable thing they can do—for others, if not themselves—is to fund anti-aging research.
Johnson & Johnson: This corporate giant has made a significant step forward in the frantic search to find a way to block Alzheimer’s disease and brain aging. Alkahest, a member of its recently launched biotech incubator, aims to translate a recent breakthrough in treating neurodegeneration in mice with a workable therapy for aging humans. This research—just given a huge boost with the signing of a $50 million investment deal with the Spanish plasma derivatives giant Grifols—will be based on the discovery that different factors in blood plasma, known as chemokines, can promote or inhibit brain decline. Furthering this work, Stanford scientist Dr. Tony Wyss-Coray was able to reinvigorate the brains of aging mice by injecting the blood of young mice. Part of Grifol’s $50 million investment includes $12 million for the rights to commercialize early-stage developments in the fight against neurodegeneration—a gamble that could eventually change the landscape in treating brain decline.
Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay, is worth $8.2 billion.50 He and his wife Pam Omidyar have donated millions to research on “resiliency,” the collective traits that help some individuals bounce back from illness or adversity—but not on aging itself.51 To put these millions into perspective, the couple has committed over $1 billion to “social causes.”50
Worth over $3 billion,52 David Murdoch donated $35 million in 2007 to collect health and personal information annually from 11,200 participants—the goal is 50,000—who also provide one-time urine and blood samples.53 Researchers hope to find new markers for illnesses such as Alzheimer’s that will allow them to better classify diseases. Aging, however, is not part of the focus.54
Peter Nygard is a near billionaire—worth about $900 million—who claims to have had an innovative stem cell procedure performed on his own body. The procedure, known as somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) is in its pioneering phase and essentially cultivates new stem cells from an individual’s old stem cells. Aged stem cells are harvested from the body and implanted into hollowed-out human eggs, where they multiply. The new and youthful cells, known as autologous stem cells, would then be injected into the original donor. The goal of SCNT is to help cure disease and slow aging while getting around the problem of body rejection of foreign or non-self stem cells. Nygard states that he has had more stem cells injected than anyone else—but hopes are that his volunteering as a guinea pig may move this research ahead more quickly. While there are still legal, financial, and political hurdles to jump, he plans to invest $100 million to build a world-class medical facility in the Bahamas where this novel technology will be further developed—and where, for what is expected to be a “healthy” price, he hopes it will one day be offered to medical tourists. Nygard has been instrumental in helping write and pass stem cell legislation in the Bahamas to accommodate his vision. His company, Nygard Biotech, is planning research facilities and clinics in several countries beyond the Bahamas including, India, Thailand, and Macao.
The Buck Institute for Research on Aging is the only free-standing institute dedicated to age-related research, and it has recently been tapped by Google’s new venture Calico to provide physical research facilities. The institute has been studying ways to inhibit the earliest origins of age-related diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease and has already patented a number of basic findings and technologies. For instance, Buck scientists have been investigating the ability of the dyes normally used in imaging scans to highlight amyloid aggregates in postmortem brain tissue of Alzheimer’s patients because these same dyes have been shown to help break up these aggregates. Will the institute achieve significant anti-aging breakthroughs? Director Brian Kennedy is optimistic: “We’re now at the point where it’s easy to extend the life span 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.” But as a private institute, the Buck Institute is seeking donations from the public—and billionaire support is desperately needed.
Despite a massive health and research budget, government funding is largely withheld from research into slowing biological aging.
Out of the world’s 1,826 billionaires, who control $7.05 trillion and fund innumerable charities, a scant few are funding projects to meaningfully delay or reverse aging.
This is starting to change, however. As far-thinking billionaires start to provide funding aimed at increasing healthy longevity, this will likely encourage other wealthy individuals to prioritize this type of research that benefits all of humanity, as the Life Extension Foundation has for the past 35 years.
If you have any questions on the scientific content of this article, please call a Life Extension® Health Advisor at 1-866-864-3027.
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