Humanity has long been in search of the mythical Fountain of Youth, from Alexander the Great to knights of the Crusades.
But now Silicon Valley scientists believe they are on the cusp of discovering the cause of ageing, which will help them achieve the unthinkable: find a cure.
Earlier this year, doctor and investor Joon Yun launched the Palo Alto Longevity Prize, offering $1 million (£650,000) to anyone who could “hack the code of life” and come up with a way to keep us young.
“It’s always been said that there’s two certainties in life: death and taxation, but death isn’t looking so certain anymore,” says Stuart Kim, one of 50 world-class advisers on the prize board and a professor in Developmental Biology and Genetics at Stanford University.
He believes ageing is simply a medical problem for which a solution can be found.
The prize will be awarded to the first team to unlock what many believe to be the secret to ageing: homeostatic capacity, or the ability of the body’s systems to stabilise in response to stressors.
As the body ages, being able to recover from diseases, injuries and lifestyle stresses becomes more difficult. In youth, blood pressure and elevated blood sugar levels can return easily to normal levels.
As homeostatic capacity erodes as we get older, the body is no longer able to regulate these changes as effectively, resulting in diseases such as diabetes or hypertension.
Dr Yun, who worked for several years as a radiologist at Stanford Hospital before joining a hedge fund investing in health care, uses the analogy of a “weeble wobble” toy to explain that no matter how far it is pushed, it is able to centre itself again.
A person only becomes aware of their body’s homeostasis when they start losing it in middle age: often characterised by the loss of ability to tolerate cold or hot weather, or feeling nauseous after a roller-coaster ride where you once felt exhilarated.
“Up until about 45 years old, most people die from external stressors such as trauma or infection, but as we get older we die of what looks like a loss of intrinsic capacities,” he tells The Sunday Telegraph.
Increased homeostatic capacity could allow people to live beyond 120 years – the theoretical maximum human lifespan.
Scientists could effectively slow down the body’s clock and enable us to remain middle aged for 50 years or more, meaning we can feel 50 when we are really 80. The future could see us not just living longer, but staying healthier for longer.
“This isn’t like plastic surgery where you’re papering over the cracks, this is actually making a person younger from the inside out,” Dr Yun says.
The first half of the prize will be awarded next year to the team that can restore the homeostatic capacity of an ageing adult mammal to that of a young one, thereby reversing the effects of ageing.
The second half to the team that can then extend the lifespan of their chosen mammal by 50 per cent of published norms.
So far 15 teams have entered, including a handful from Stanford University as well as from further afield at the genetics department at George Washington University in DC and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York.
But they face even fiercer competition outside the prize. Google recently unveiled its own $1.2 billion research centre Calico, or the California Life Company, aiming to achieve the tech giant’s boldest ambition yet – extend the human lifespan.
While their work, which is led by Arthur Levinson, former CEO of biotech firm Genentech, is shrouded in secrecy, they are said to be focusing on developing drugs for age-related neurodegenerative disorders.
“Our goal is to make progress on a very basic challenge: how to help people stay healthier for longer,” Mr Levinson said of the project.
Meanwhile, Craig Venter, the geneticist who sequenced the first human genome, has set up his own company, Human Longevity Inc., alongside stem cell pioneer Robert Hariri.
They plan to sequence one million human genomes, including those of several supercentenarians, in order to build the world’s largest database of human genetic variation. By looking at the DNA, they hope to discover a common feature among those living longer.
Dr de Grey, a British gerontologist at the SENS Foundation in Silicon Valley, has dedicated his life’s work to solving the perennial problem of death. He believes it should be treated as a disease and can be postponed indefinitely.
“Since the dawn of civilisation, humanity has been enslaved by the knowledge that no lifestyle choice, no medicine, no quirk of fate, can enable anyone to live for more than a few decades without suffering a progressive decline that leads inevitably to death,” the Cambridge University researcher says.
“But scientists have already drawn a road map to defeat biological ageing and will one day show there is no such inevitability. This is a when, not an if.”
However, he takes a different approach, looking at fixing the damage caused by metabolism.
The idea of reverse-engineering ageing is not a new one. The American Academy of Anti-Ageing Medicine was set up in 1992, but only recently has the idea gained traction in mainstream medicine.
Dr Yun believes there had not been the support or funding needed to galvanise the field until now. “No one was incentivised to fix the underlying causes of ageing as too many of the big players in the medical and insurance industries benefit from the current system,” he says.
There has also not been much of a public appetite, which scientists put down to lack of understanding. A recent survey by Pew Research found that most Americans did not actually want to live beyond the accepted human lifespan.
When asked if they wanted medical treatments that slowed the ageing process and allowed the average person to live to at least 120 years, 56 per cent surveyed said no. When asked how long they wanted to live, the median answer was 90.
Even Bill Gates, Microsoft founder and philanthropist, seemed to write off the desire to extend life as Silicon Valley hubris. “It seems pretty egocentric while we still have malaria and TB for rich people to fund things so they can live longer,” he said, however continued “It would be nice to live longer though I admit.”
Along with the reasoning that it felt “fundamentally unnatural”, a number of survey respondents said they would worry about overpopulation and a potential lack of resources.
But Dr Yun says society will adapt to changes in life expectancy. “Just a few generations ago it was common to see people going into the workforce at 13, and dying before they turned 45. Things have changed since then – people now stay in education for longer, and have children and retire much later.
“Plus if people begin living longer, they will care more about what the world will look like in the future – impact concerns will shift from being their children’s problem to being their problem.”
Life-extending technology has become a booming industry in Silicon Valley.
Google X and Proteus Digital Health are among a dozen or so companies working on “ingestible tech” that they hope will go some way towards keeping us alive and healthy for longer.
Google’s pill, which is filled with tiny iron-oxide nanoparticles that enter the bloodstream, is able to identify cancer tumour cells, which give off early biochemical signals when they contract the disease.
Proteus, having already gained FDA approval, is now in talks with Britain’s National Health Service about the possible use of its sensor pill, which sends biological information it retrieves from the body to a smartphone.
At the same time, the XPrize Foundation, a charity that runs technology competitions, is working on developing a hand-held all-in-one diagnostic device. With one drop of blood, the “tricorder” will be able to accurately detect conditions such as diabetes and tuberculosis as well as measuring blood pressure and temperature – all from the comfort of your home.
Grant Campany, director of the XPrize, told The Sunday Telegraph: “It will all but eradicate the need to see a doctor for check-ups. The device will help people take their health back into their own hands.”
The Longevity Prize’s Dr Kim, who has spent the last 10 years looking into the causes of ageing, believes we cannot afford not to come up with a solution. “We shouldn’t just be thinking of how to treat diseases like cancer, we should be looking at how to prevent them by figuring out why old people are much more likely to get them,” he says. “If you could take 80-year-olds and make them biologically more like 60-year-olds, that’s a 15-fold decrease in the rate of cancer right there.”
“If we solve this, we all win.”