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These Russian Scientists Are On A Quest To Extend Human Life

Alexander Zhavoronkov–age 37–is convinced he’ll personally surpass the current record for longest life.

These Russian Scientists Are On A Quest To Extend Human Life
[Top Photo: clu/Getty Images]

It’s questionable if extending life in itself is a particularly commendable or noble goal of scientific research. There are already a lot of people in the world, and many of them are already living significantly longer than people used to. Allowing a few people to live a few extra years doesn’t seem urgent in the way other scientific goals certainly are.

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The quest to extend life, though, has lately become an obsession among a certain Silicon Valley crowd–a moonshot sort of thing. Heavyweights like Peter Thiel, Larry Ellison, Peter Diamandis, and Craig Venter are putting significant energy and money towards the goal.

“There’s a convergence of IT and biomedicine,” says Alexander Zhavoronkov, who’s part of the extending life scene. “There are more and more people from the IT industry entering the biomedical field. Many people in aging research come from IT.”

Zhavoronkov, ex-director of semiconductor company ATI Technologies, has organized several major conferences, including one recently in Basel, Switzerland, where Thiel gave the keynote. Zhavoronkov also has his own company, In Silico Medicine, which he runs out of an office on the Johns Hopkins campus in Baltimore, and serves as an adjunct professor at Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology and director of the Biogerontology Research Foundation.

In other words, Zhavoronkov, who is 37, is a busy man. Speaking to him recently, I got the sense of a flurry or initiatives. The Russian sees extending life as an absolutely worthwhile goal. He views aging not as inevitable, but a failure of science to give people a few more years. “Large pharma doesn’t view aging as a disease yet,” he complains. Zhavoronkov also wants to bring credibility to a field where diet and exercise companies make scientific-sounding claims that often aren’t true.

Alexander Zhavoronkov and his collaborator Alexey Moskalev recently launched the Geroprotectors.org database, an attempt to collect all the legitimate science of anti-aging in one place (see their report here).

The more than 230 chemicals listed have all shown potential in experiments either to slow down aging or in actually repairing age-related damage (bringing “the old state closer to the young state”). Most of the experiments were on simpler animals like flies, worms and mice. Zhavoronkov hopes the entries will be jumping-off points for other scientists to do biostatistical analysis and modeling on human extrapolations.

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“Our idea is to put it out in the open so that people can design algorithms to connect it to clinical trials and other data and make predictions on their attractiveness [of geroprotectors] to humans,” Zhavoronkov says.

In Silico Medicine is working on several of the candidates in the database, including N-acetylcysteine and metformin.

Zhavoronkov is also doing a fair amount of self-testing. And he’s confident that what he’s taking him will allow him to live longer than the oldest woman ever (Jeanne Calment) who died at the age of 122. “I take 200 compounds to see the effects on the blood. I’m think I’m going to beat Jeanne Calment for sure,” he says.

Geroprotector science could have positive impacts for work on cancer and Alzheimer’s, Zhavoronkov says. But, to me at least, it also feels a tad self-indulgent. With so many other needs in the world, adding a few extra years to a few Silicon Valley guys doesn’t seem like a pressing problem. But then that’s going to stop people from trying.

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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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