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5 Oct

Contained in the secret world of immortality science

From vampiric millionaire Bryan Johnson to lab scientists concocting cutting-edge treatments, the race to resolve ageing is heating up – but do you actually need to live ceaselessly?

You’re going to die. That’s not a threat, or one more warning about existential risks like climate change or rogue AI. It’s only a fact. The one, unavoidable fact of life on our planet to this point: that it’s going to, eventually, come to an end. 

In fact, life expectancy today is for much longer than it was. Individuals are looking younger than ever, too. But still, if you happen to’re born within the UK before the 12 months 2000, the projections say that your probabilities of ringing in the brand new century on Recent Yr’s Eve, 2099, are looking pretty slim. For those who’re in your mid-20s in 2023, you’ve got about 60 years – and that’s if the existential threats don’t get you first. That’s a bit greater than 3,000 Saturday nights. A single fly-by of Halley’s Comet. A mere 3,483 reruns of the unique X-Files, or 360 problems with Dazed. But what if things didn’t need to be this fashion? What if we could solve mortality for good?

The answers to those questions are elusive, although there is no such thing as a shortage of influential institutions and research labs working hard to defer death as we speak. The Academy for Health and Lifespan Research. The SENS Research Foundation. The Coalition for Radical Life Extension. Unity Biotechnology. Sierra Sciences. Life Biosciences. Altos Labs. Calico. The list goes on and on. Approaches range from developing intricate lifestyle plans, to reverse-engineering drugs from immortal jellyfish. Investors include Jeff Bezos, Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and controversial billionaire Peter Thiel. The super-rich fund it, and the very wealthy profit from it – visiting the increasing variety of luxury spas and clinics worldwide to undergo treatments. They call it longevity, but it surely’s hard not to consider the science as a contemporary version of the hunt for the Holy Grail. The reward? Everlasting life. 

With a lot money flowing into this industry, and a lot at stake, you’d think that we’d hear more about it. Yes, there are odd headlines about blood boys and life-extending human hibernation, but beyond just a few flashy experiments we all know little or no about what actually goes on behind the closed doors of those shadowy labs and tech hubs. Researching this text, the overwhelming majority of press inquiries were met with stony silence, while the few labs that responded offered polite, but firm, rejection. Individual scientists were guarded, with a bent to show into ghosts after the primary few emails. The actual fact is, most individuals just don’t need to speak about it. A charitable interpretation of this silence is that they’re just too focused on their research to waste time on sceptics. Nonetheless – in a cultural landscape stuffed with conspiracy theories about transhumanist technocrats and adrenochrome-harvesting elites – there’s a growing tendency to imbue their secrecy with a deeper, darker meaning.

Then, there’s Bryan Johnson. You may know him because the multimillionaire who drained blood from his teenage son in a bid to increase his own life. Since launching his experimental Blueprint project a few years ago, Johnson has evangelised for a holistic approach to anti-ageing at every opportunity. His output – which showcases the expensive treatments he tests exclusively on himself – ranges from magazine interviews, to glossy YouTube vlogs, to “dank memes”. When Dazed emailed him for an interview, he responded the identical day: “Looking forward to it.”

A few weeks later, Johnson dialled right into a Zoom call. Through various treatments involving lasers and light-weight therapy, gene therapies, countless skincare products, a prohibitively precise food regimen plan, intense workouts, and a regimen of more than 100 pills per day, he’s attempting to rejuvenate his skin (alongside the remaining of his body… yes, all of it) to the standard of an 18-year-old’s. He also colors his hair, though he’s actively on the lookout for alternatives to rejuvenate the pigment. Onscreen, wearing a decent blue hoodie with a stark backdrop of towering, empty shelves, the 46-year-old looks… pretty good for 46. Under the surface, though, the self-styled “most measured person in history” says that the information tracks more concrete improvements in areas like cognitive ability, mood, and various biomarkers linked to ageing. Plus, he recently recorded six months of perfect sleep scores.

“I’m an entrepreneur,” he says, having made his fortune with firms comparable to Braintree and Venmo within the 2000s. “I enjoy constructing products. I enjoy being the product more.”

Here, it’s probably useful to stop and make a few distinctions. Immortality science, for one, isn’t quite similar to the science of anti-ageing: the latter goals to increase people’s lifespans and improve health in old age, while the previous goals to cast off death completely (making it far more controversial). Then, there’s the problem of lifespan versus healthspan: technically, lifespan is just about extending the variety of years you reside for, while healthspan is about extending the years you may remain comfortable and energetic inside your life. Often, though, these are lumped together – and for good reason. “Do I need to live to 140, and spend the last 50 years in my bed?” says Dr George Gaitanos, COO and scientific officer on the Swiss-based health and wellness brand Chenot. “No.”

In actual fact, Dr Gaitanos has spent the last decade researching recent protocols, treatments and biotech with the aim of breaking down these distinctions – health and wellness, lifespan and healthspan. “Everybody’s talking about health and wellness as separate entities,” he tells Dazed. “But we now have combined it into one concept, talking in regards to the wellness of our health.” If this feels like a phrase lifted from glossy marketing materials, you then’re not far off: Chenot maintains luxury retreats internationally, where visitors can select from a menu of treatments that claim to “reset the body on the cellular level”. Nonetheless, Gaitanos has an extended scientific background; prior to Chenot, he also made efforts to enhance the health of “bizarre people” – that’s, those who can’t afford to pay several thousand kilos for every week in Switzerland or Montenegro. Living longer and healthier lives doesn’t just need to be for the ultra-rich, he suggests, adding that he hopes to see a health-oriented shift in our model of living across all levels of society in the approaching many years.

Speaking of the ultra-rich, let’s get back to Bryan Johnson. In the case of lifespan, healthspan, and even purely aesthetic procedures like hair growth or skincare, Johnson does all of it. And yes, it’s easy to wander off on the contentious topic of his boyish looks, or the gorier details of his treatments, but on a deeper level which means that he’s pursuing a far more ambitious goal: this can be a man driven by a real belief in science’s ability to show back the biological clock and avert death, reasonably than simply kicking the can down the road. “Don’t die” is his mantra, and it’s no joke.

“[Blueprint] was a contemplation of what it’s going to mean to be human in the approaching many years and centuries,” Johnson says, looking back on the project’s not-so-humble beginnings. He points out that we spend lots of time fascinated by how one can construct higher technologies – computers, smartphones, virtual reality, or AI – and worrying about their risks. “We spend disproportionately less time fascinated by the long run of us.”

That said, his vision for the long run of humanity often means integrating with these emerging technologies. For instance, he’s developed a specialised algorithm to process all of the information he collects about himself, match it up with the relevant science, and switch it into actual anti-ageing treatments. “In a nutshell, an algorithm runs me,” he says. “Initially, when people hear that concept, they think it sounds dystopian. Nearly all of my time is spent explaining the nuances.”

A certain level of backlash is unsurprising on the subject of entrusting every moment of your waking (and sleeping) life to an algorithm. By now, we’re no strangers to the negative effects that these technologies can have on our lives, from reinforcing racial biases to melting our brains as we scroll through limitless social media feeds. A few of Johnson’s treatments, like taking “non-feminising” oestrogen and limiting his contact with sunlight have also proved polarising, but none more so than the vampiric blood transfers, which began as an attempt to handle his own father’s cognitive decline, before his teenage son got involved as a “fun family thing”. (The transfers between the 2 younger Johnsons have since been phased out, having proved relatively ineffective.) The general public response ranged from mocking memes to full-blown Satanic Panic. Johnson doesn’t appear to mind the controversy, though; he even enjoys playing the antagonist, at times. Besides retweeting memes and jokes about his vampiric tendencies, he seems particularly keen to match himself to Jesus Christ. “Jesus fed bread and wine, accelerating ageing and inebriating,” he repeats on our call. “I will feed you with nutrients that nourish and create life… this 2000-year-old character isn’t up so far with anti-ageing science.”

In his bestselling book Lifespan, Harvard biologist Dr David Sinclair proposes a radical theory about why we age and, eventually, die. The so-called “Information Theory of Ageing” identifies the lack of epigenetic information (the thing that dictates the particular functions of our cells) as a universal driver of biological ageing, attributable to unrepaired DNA damage. Sinclair compares this to a DVD getting scratched over time, in order that it stops producing images or the pictures it produces are warped and corrupted. Controversially, he also believes that the “scratches” might be buffed out, restoring the pristine flow of knowledge and completely reversing the ageing process. That is something that he’s already claimed to have achieved in small rodents.

As a world-leading professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, co-director of the Paul F. Glenn Center for Biology of Aging Research, and president of the Academy for Health and Lifespan Research, Sinclair has a good amount of educational weight to back up such a radical claim. At the identical time, many critics complain that his most notable research results are yet to be reproduced, and even his colleagues have called him overly optimistic.

You may have some questions of your individual for Sinclair. Most significantly: if we can turn back the biological clock, then how? In his podcast, also called Lifespan, he draws out just a few various factors, from (limited) exercise, to food regimen and medicines, to cold, heat and hyperbaric oxygen therapy. Lots of these treatments, he explains, are aimed toward boosting NAD+ (or nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide), a compound present in all living cells. In response to Sinclair, NAD+ levels are closely linked to DNA repair and the activation of epigenetic proteins called sirtuins, helping fend off the aforementioned information loss. In other words, they might be key to understanding – and in the future defeating – the ageing process.

The links between NAD+ and ageing aren’t entirely recent. In Dazed, Isamaya Ffrench has previously hailed intravenous NAD+ supplements as a “miracle treatment” for stress- and age-related issues. John Gillen, one in all the UK’s leading professionals in addiction recovery, similarly uses the word “miracle” to explain the chemical’s effects and he should know: since stumbling on NAD+ at a specialist clinic for alcoholics in Tijuana, Mexico, he’s spent years immersed in research on its effects, culminating in the inspiration of London’s Bionad clinic.

The actual details of what the chemical does within the body are “extremely complicated,” Gillen tells me over the phone. “But, in a nutshell, you simply cannot have life without NAD+. It’s as essential as oxygen.” Why? Because, as a coenzyme, it’s accountable for transporting the energy from the food we eat to our cells. As we age, though, a process called oxidative stress produces increasing amounts of free radicals in our body, which cause damage to our DNA, and NAD+ is repurposed to assist repair it. Less available NAD+ means less energy, in addition to more visible changes: “Our hair turns grey, our skin starts to vary.” Via in-clinic IV drips and smaller kits that allow users to “microdose” at home, Gillen has made it his mission to slow this process by pumping NAD+ back into people’s systems (though he notes that lifestyle changes, like staying away from alcohol or excessive exercise, offer an excellent more “fundamental” boost).

It should come as no surprise, by now, that Bryan Johnson has also experimented with day by day NAD+ boosters, taking his levels back to that of a 16-year-old. Unlike the likes of Johnson or Sinclair, nonetheless, Gillen doesn’t consider in the opportunity of radically extending our lifespans, only in making ageing a more comfortable process. “I don’t agree with turning the biological clock back,” he clarifies. “But to age healthier, NAD+ goes to be a serious contender.”

Dr Gaitanos is one other immortality doubter. “I’m very, very sceptical,” he says of the emerging hype around life-extending technologies. “I think that dying will at all times be inevitable.” That doesn’t mean we’ve hit the theoretical cap on human lifespans yet, he notes, citing studies that place the typical maximum age at around 140 or 150. Nor does it mean that some outlier demographics won’t live even longer, as explored in a recent Netflix documentary on “blue zones” – places like Okinawa, Sardinia or California, which boast disproportionate numbers of centenarians. What it does mean, is that we will’t delay the chilly embrace of the Grim Reaper ceaselessly. It’s not entirely clear, yet, why this must be the case, but Dr Gaitanos’ theory is that we turn out to be useless once we lose the flexibility to breed: “From an evolutionary perspective, we’re a burden on nature, and from then we’re left in freefall.”

All of the pessimists on this planet won’t stop people like Johnson or Sinclair from attempting to stop ageing, in fact, and recent technologies are emerging on a regular basis with the potential to rewrite what we find out about our own mortality. These range from synthetic biology – the controversial science of redesigning living organisms, AKA “playing God” – to artificial intelligence, which firms like DeepMind have already trained to solve fundamental problems in biology. 

AI can also be getting used to fight ageing directly, explains Vanessa Smer-Barreto, a researcher on the University of Edinburgh, who has helped pioneer machine learning techniques that drastically speed up the technique of drug discovery. In a paper published in Nature back in June, Smer-Barreto outlined this research, reporting the invention of three recent senolytics (which goal senescent or “zombie” cells, linked to age-related diseases, for elimination) via algorithms trained on published data. “It could sound like science fiction,” she tells Dazed, but the outcomes speak for themselves: a several hundred-fold reduction in drug screening costs, and an enormous chunk of time subtracted from existing research methods.

Once more, this raises the query of how much faith we’re willing to position in algorithms, or how much human input we’re willing to trade off, within the hopes of living longer. For Johnson, the entire endeavour isn’t even a matter of staying alive ceaselessly, but just long enough that the choices are completely out of human hands. “Our galaxy is 13.8 billion years old,” he says. “In any case that point, we’re baby steps away from the creation of superintelligence, which might be probably the most significant event within the history of the galaxy.” If and when intelligent machines do speed up past our smartest humans, he adds, it’s going to be unattainable for any human to make correct predictions in regards to the future. “I just need to be around to see it.”

Put simply, that is the wager on the centre of Johnson’s Blueprint project: the long run shall be good (or interesting) enough that it’s value sacrificing the small and immediate pleasures of the current, with a purpose to be certain that he gets there.

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‘We’re baby steps away from the creation of superintelligence, which might be probably the most significant event within the history of the galaxy. I just need to be around to see it” – Bryan Johnson

Unfortunately, not all of us can spend $2 million per 12 months on our personal longevity project, so what’s going to occur to the remaining of us? Like Dr Gaitanos, Johnson paints an optimistic picture, his voice tinged with impatience on the query. “Society has answered this query for tons of of years,” he says. “Recent technologies are expensive and inaccessible, after which they turn out to be accessible and cheap. It’s a cycle that [has] happened hundreds of times. The people making this argument… it’s weak. It’s unaware of history. And it misses the target.”

So, we just have to take a seat and wait for the tech to trickle down? Not exactly. Within the meantime, Johnson adds, he goals to make himself into an exemplary human being, who we will look to for inspiration to vary the things available to us within the here and now – things like food regimen, sleep, exercise and work-life balance. “Based upon what people have told me,” he explains, “Bryan Johnson is an idea of their mind of a substitute for grind culture. An alternative choice to ‘death is inevitable’. An alternative choice to feeling hopeless in regards to the future.”

Johnson’s Blueprint protocol – including the approximate costs of his food regimen, treatments, and rigorous testing – can also be available free of charge online, with a disclaimer that it “doesn’t constitute providing medical advice”. With $2 million per 12 months sunk into his longevity research, it seems that Johnson is working on a major financial loss. However, this might be only the start of a profitable long-term project. Last month, Johnson rolled out step one in “scaling accessibility” to his longevity routine, in the shape of limited edition olive oil – two bottles for $75 (and, with olive oil making up 15 per cent of his day by day caloric intake, true Blueprint acolytes are going to get through it quite fast). If you have got about $300 per week to spare, it’s also possible to join an official Blueprint meal delivery program.

If all humanity’s best feats really are derived from our fear of mortality, then it follows that there’s nothing just like the promise of everlasting life (or the mere postponement of death) to construct a brand around. That’s why luxury retreats backed by longevity researchers can charge eye-watering prices for a brief, supposedly life-extending stay, and “basic” NAD+ treatments can set you back almost £400. It’s why David Sinclair is a Recent York Times bestseller, sold his first company to pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline for $720 million (only to have it shut down five years later with no successful drug development) and currently runs one other company valued at about $500 million. It’s why, by 2030, the worldwide anti-ageing beauty market is ready to hit a staggering $120 billion.

This isn’t to say that some (or all) of the above aren’t genuinely dedicated to taking humanity to recent heights… but should they be regarded with a level of scepticism? Probably, yes. Because, at the top of the day, it’s difficult to make informed decisions about your longevity for a wide range of reasons. While “real” scientists are skittish and reluctant to make any daring claims, those who aren’t constrained by institutional rules and regulations offer extremely small sample sizes and hyperbolic marketing campaigns. Even in the event that they are real, it’s going to take a literal lifetime to see their results – whether or not they really have solved the age-old problem of mortality, or merely masked it, like dyeing your grey hairs. Is that actually enough to persuade you handy your life over to an algorithm, hook yourself as much as an IV and sacrifice all of the small pleasures that (because it often feels to us mere mortals) make life value living in the primary place? 

For Johnson, the reply is obvious. “Once you ask any person in the event that they need to live ceaselessly [you] rarely get a positive response,” he says. “It breaks the human mind. Humans don’t know how one can take into consideration ceaselessly. But, once you ask them in the event that they need to live tomorrow, almost everybody says yes. The one thing I care about resides to tomorrow.” Infinite tomorrows, ceaselessly – it’s a tempting prospect, but at what cost?

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