Since humans first realised we were doomed to die, we’ve sought immortality – through religion, great works or producing children to carry our selfish genes into the future. And then there are those who believe death is for other people.
According to Orbis Research, consumers spent $43 billion (£33 billion) on anti-ageing products in 2018 – from lactic-acid-based anti-wrinkle creams to collagen peptide tablets and anti-oxidant co-enzyme Q10 pills. Research from Pitchbook estimates that $559 million in venture capital was invested in US anti-ageing companies in 2017. These include California-based BioTime, which is developing treatments using embryonic stem cells to rebuild cell and tissue function; CohBar, working on editing the mitochondrial genome to regulate metabolism and cell death; and Google sister company Calico, which has a $2.5 billion budget for research into solutions for age-related diseases.
“Everyone is searching for a magic pill that will cure ageing,” explains Richard Siow, who heads up ageing research at King’s College London. “The truth is, lifestyle and diet changes are the most realistic way to extend your life. You can’t just adopt these as you get older. You need to start young – we’re ageing from the moment we’re born.”
Of course, diet and exercise alone won’t enable humans to achieve immortality. We profile the scientists and startups trying to hold back time.
Protecting nerve cells
Elysium Health’s supplement Basis contains a chemical called nicotinamide riboside, a form of vitamin B. This converts to an enzyme called nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide, or NAD+, which has a role in metabolism, cell ageing and protecting nerve cells. Levels of NAD+ diminish significantly over time. Some studies suggest that the drug causes older mice to look and act younger, and can reduce age-related diseases. There have been no conclusive trials in humans, but there are at least 21 trials under way.
Researcher Kenny Wilson observes fruit flies at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, the world’s oldest independent anti-ageing research laboratory, founded in 1999 in Novato, California. Working with fruit flies, scientists at the institute have identified the FOXO gene, which helps the young adapt to diet changes, but disrupts the metabolism of the elderly – for both fruit flies and humans. Work on the gene may help explain why dietary restriction extends lifespan in several species, including humans.
Russian transhumanist Alexey Samykin stands in front of two containers storing frozen bodies at one of KrioRus’s two facilities in Moscow. Samykin plans to be a future resident of this chamber – while PayPal founder Peter Thiel and computer scientist Ray Kurzweil are booked into similar US centres. Since the urban myth emerged that Walt Disney’s brain was cryogenically frozen in the hope that one day it could be re-animated, the ideas behind cryonics have gained popular appeal as much as scientific approbation.
Lab technician Steve Hoyland works in the UK’s Biobank DNA store, in Stockport – one of many bio-repositories around the world storing biological samples for use in research, especially genomics. The UK Biobank study is following 500,000 volunteers (aged from 40 to 69 when they enrolled in 2006) for at least 30 years. Similar projects have identified links between parental longevity and children’s risk of age-related disease; described the micro-structural changes in ageing brains; shown that chromosome structure has an impact on lifespan; and identified genes that affect ageing.
This 3D printout of a hand, created by the Italian biomedical engineering company Skorpion Medical, is an example of the advances in prototyping assistive tech for the elderly – from personalised devices for arthritis patients, through walkers and hearing aids, to the HU-GO 3D printed wheelchair. Skorpion Medical prints off unique orthopaedic and orthodontic implants to support or replace damaged limbs or failing teeth, and can model organs to help surgeons’ preparation ahead of an operation.
Slow tissue ageing
Japan opened the first cryo-sauna in the late 1970s. Now the Cryomed Clinic in Tokyo is one of hundreds of private clinics worldwide offering cryotherapy. Inspired by ice packs placed on swollen tissue to reduce inflammation, and cryo-surgery – deploying extreme cold to destroy tumours or diseased tissues – a cryo-sauna typically involves a three-minute bath in liquid nitrogen, producing temperatures of below -100°C. The intention is to accelerate the metabolism, strengthen the immune system, and slow tissue ageing.
The Hocatt Ozone Sauna, invented by the Guangzhou-based South African engineer André Smith, offers Hyperthermic Ozone Carbonic Acid Transdermal Therapy, blasting carbon-dioxide-rich steam into a Turkish-bath-style cubicle to open the pores, before flooding the chamber with ultraviolet light and ozone, an allotrope of the oxygen molecule. Ozone has a long history as an anti-inflammatory and immune system booster. Research suggests it may have anti-ageing properties by reducing free radicals in cell mitochondria.
Preserving stem cells
The mice storage room at the Leibniz-Fritz Lipmann Institute in Jena, Germany’s first centre for the study of longevity, has played a key role in the identification of a gene switch common to mice and humans that can produce a protein that damages metabolism and ages mice faster – but can be controlled through a restricted diet. Core research at the institute (on mice and fish) focuses on the ageing of stem cells – the basic, unspecialised cells present throughout the body that preserve organs and tissue but decline over time.
More great stories from WIRED
💩 Japanese self-cleaning toilets are conquering the West
📱 The new Android 10 features that will transform your phone
📖 The best sci-fi books everyone should read
🍫 The foods you’ll really need to stockpile for no-deal Brexit
♻️ The truth behind the UK’s biggest recycling myths
📧 Get the best tech deals and gadget news in your inbox