No sooner had he offered himself a trip to space last July than Jeff Bezos saw much further: ending our sad status as mortals. The Amazon founder has indeed joined the cohort of investors, including Yuri Milner, one of the early shareholders of Facebook and Airbnb, who have pledged $3 billion on Alto Labs. The latter claims to reverse the aging of human cells. Aim to bring life expectancy to 120, then 150 years. And why not beyond?
Delaying our release date is the new frontier for Silicon Valley. A whim of the billionaires? There is, but science advances. “We will slow down the aging process, it is no longer fantastic,” assures Miria Ricchetti, head of the Department of Molecular Mechanisms of Aging at the Pasteur Institute. A medical revolution. So far, age-related pathologies (cancer, cardiovascular or neurodegenerative diseases, etc.) have been treated in a segmented manner.
However, if the genesis of these diseases is linked to a common process, the accumulation of senescent cells, they could therefore be treated by revitalizing the damaged cells. A lead confirmed by the important discovery made by Professor Shinya Yamanaka, 2012 Nobel Prize in Medicine, which showed that it is possible to rejuvenate adult cells, giving them back the regenerating properties of embryonic cells.
In addition to the technical difficulty, it will also be necessary to overturn the regulations, because old age is not considered an illness. It is therefore currently not possible to design a drug in the rules to cure it.
This dizzying perspective fascinates California tech circles who love transhumanist theses. Even before Alto Labs was founded, investments in startups and university labs to discover a cure for aging exceeded $2 billion a year.
So far without tangible results. Calico, which was founded by Google co-founder Larry Page in 2013 to identify hereditary factors in longevity, has yet to release anything. Peter Thiel, the founder of eBay, was unsuccessful with two of his projects: Unity Biotechnology, which is looking for cures against cell degradation, and Ambrosia, which proposed injecting blood plasma from young people into old people, had to close. Closer to a traditional clinical trial and more promising, the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, is testing 3,000 patients with metformin, a known antidiabetic drug that may boost metabolism and slow inflammation.
This side of the Atlantic there is neither a big boss who dreams (at least publicly) of immortality, nor an influential transhumanist lobby, but very good basic research on the question. At the end of the 2010s, aging research was also integrated into the funding of the European Research Council (ERC), which awards around fifty research grants to university laboratories specializing in this field every year.
“In Europe, there is much more about helping people live long, healthy lives than imagining a hypothetical existence of 150 years or more,” summarizes Professor Eric Gilson, coordinator of AgeMed’s Inserm, the main program on the subject Cellular aging in France, together mobilizing about twenty teams, a budget of 60 million euros over five years and developing numerous international collaborations (Netherlands, Great Britain, Singapore, etc.). Launched in 2016, this project aims to advance cell biology to find new and preventive treatments against cancer and degenerative diseases.
Even if the budgets are disproportionate to those available to Americans, academic research in cell biology is helping to develop a fairly promising ecosystem. Not to overcome death, but to cure certain diseases. Thus, Professor Jean-Marc Lemaitre, one of the great French experts in this field – his Montpellier team converted cells from centenarians into young cells – created Organips, whose aim is to create functional organs from stem cells. So eventually we could do transplants to replace organs affected by cancer.
Another example is Smart Immune at the Paris Santé Cochin cluster, which uses cell therapy to restore the immune system of leukemia patients. Another example is the Bordeaux start-up TreeFrog, founded by two Normaliens, which has successfully raised funds of 61 million euros. His work in cell therapy should make it possible to fight Parkinson’s disease. First human trial in 2026.
Will these companies be able to compete with the Americans? “It seems complicated, but it’s a more rational approach,” summarizes Laurent Alexandre, founder of Doctissimo and technology specialist. Silicon Valley has the means to bet billions, but nothing says it will be enough to invent eternal youth.” In short, the one who will live 150 years has not yet been born.
The work of European start-ups that could slow down degeneration
GenSight, a Paris start-up, has developed a treatment for Leber’s disease that blinds a person in a matter of weeks.
TreeFrog in Bordeaux is culturing stem cells to develop neural microtissues that could be transplanted.
The Irish Senolytic provides for the reduction and elimination of senescent cells at the origin of cancer recurrence.
The British company Shift Bioscience is researching the losses in cellular energy production that could be the cause.
MedXCell in Montpellier has already successfully tested a stem cell-based regenerative treatment to treat this pathology.
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