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Bay Area seeing rush of research, investment in human longevity

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Living for 100 years is rare today but century-long healthy lives could eventually become the norm as scientists unravel the aging process and billionaires invest in a field that is now taking off, researchers and market analysts say.

“It’s not a fantasy. I firmly believe we are going to get there,” said Eric Verdin, president of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in Novato. “The question is how long is it going to take to get there.”

A recent subtle but significant shift for scientists at Buck and throughout the field of aging may have shortened the forecast at a time when the U.S. and global population is growing older and the cost of treating the infirmities of the elderly threatens to multiply.

Geroscience, a term coined at Buck in 2007, is based on the recognition that aging itself is the enabler of the deadly and debilitating afflictions associated with growing old: Alzheimer’s, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, glaucoma and frailty.

Buck scientists working separately on cures for specific diseases “ended up realizing they were all focusing on the same pathways,” Verdin said. The common element: Aging, he said.

Geroscience is a new focused “approach (that) aims to target the molecular processes that underpin aging here, and fix them at their roots, stopping aging before it begins,” according to the website geroscience.com, which tracks developments in the field.

Its boosters are making ambitious statements about human longevity and leading efforts are attracting some major investors.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, and big companies like Google and Facebook, as well as the federal government’s science funding arm, are placing big bets on the research.

Examples include a Bay Area startup, Unity Biotechnology, that is testing a drug on humans to cure osteoarthritis of the knee. Bezos and billionaire Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, were among the investors contributing more than $300 million in funding to the firm.

Google’s Calico, a biotech research company founded in 2013, is focused on aging and age-related diseases. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, have pledged up to $13 billion to a philanthropic investment group aimed at curing, preventing or managing all diseases within their children’s lifetime.

Science of longevity

Jim Mellon, a British entrepreneur and investor, believes humans will eventually live to as much as 120 years. He has used the term “healthspan” to underscore the awareness that keeping sick people alive for a few added decades would serve no purpose.

More than $4 billion has been invested in the top 30 longevity companies since 2007, with amounts that have sharply risen in the last four years, hitting about $1.3 billion this year, he said.

“The trajectory of money coming into this area — and by the way, money drives everything as we all know — is very similar to the money that came into technology” in the United States in the 1990s, Mellon said during a program last week at the Buck Institute.

“The science of longevity is catching up with the aspirations of all of us to live a longer and healthier life,” Mellon said to an audience dominated by scientists and students.

All the work at Buck is now geroscience, and it received more than $25 million in new grants this year from the National Institutes of Health. There are 25 faculty members at Buck, founded in 1999 as the first institution dedicated to research on aging, and it plans to expand to 50 faculty.

Darius Anderson, a member of Buck’s board of directors, is a managing member of Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat.

People living longer

Verdin, a physician who does research on the connection between nutrition and aging, said it should be no surprise that triple-digit ages should become common in the future.

The average lifespan in the western world has risen about two years every decade, from 47 in 1850 to 77 now, he said.

Declining infant mortality, clean air and water, antibiotics and medication for illnesses including diabetes, heart attacks and high blood pressure helped human longevity make gains in the past, Verdin said.

Climate change could greatly complicate that picture, curbing growth in lifespans or reducing them as parts of the planet grow more inhospitable.

Still, the scientific focus on aging is emerging at an opportune time, as the global population grows more gray. About 617 million people worldwide are age 65 and older, and by 2050 that number is expected to more than double to 1.6 billion, according to the National Academy of Medicine. In the United States, the number is expected to jump from 51 million last year to 95 million by 2060.

Sonoma County mirrors that trendline, with about 87,000 people 65 and over, accounting for 17 percent of the population, the Census Bureau said. Nationwide, the cohort of seniors is 15 percent.

Verdin acknowledged the “enormous” economic and political implications of a quantum leap in lifespan in terms of housing, employment and other factors.

But, he said, there have been major societal shifts in the past 50 years, such as women entering the workforce in greater numbers after World War II.

Changes because of longevity “are going to happen gradually and I think society will adjust,” Verdin said.

Concerns over disparities

Legitimate concern exists over widening economic inequality that could result from the advent of longer, healthier lifespans, he said. Already, such disparities exist, he said, noting that Marin’s overall average life expectancy is age 87, while in the low-income Marin City it is 20 years less.

“We don’t want this field to be seen as helping the rich live longer,” he said.

Still, a gold rush is on to improve the golden years.

Mellon, who has invested in a longevity firm called Juvenescence, asked the audience at Buck to consider the anti-aging cosmetic industry that sells $140 billion a year of “stuff that doesn’t work at all.”

“Imagine how big this industry will be when the stuff actually works,” he said.

He followed up with an email, adding that if anti-aging products capture half of the pharmaceutical industry’s worldwide revenue, it would amount to about $600 billion a year.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.