03 Jan Tune In, Turn On, Drop Wisdom
Insight by: Dave Whelan
Those lines from “Tomorrow Never Knows,” taken from Revolver, are over 50 years old. They were adapted by The Beatles from The Psychedelic Experience, co-written by Timothy Leary nearly 60 years ago. Leary and his co-writers, Richard Alpert (Ram Dass) and Ralph Metzner, had adapted passages from the Tibetan Book of the Dead (“Bardo Thodol”), which is several hundred years old. You might say those words have some serious longevity.
More than that, the concept of longevity has, well, longevity. As long as there has been life, there has been death, with humans seeking to extend the former to avoid the latter. Stories of the philosopher’s stone, the elixir of life, or the fountain of youth have been popular over the years.
Over more recent years, more serious attempts have been made to create longevity or even immortality. Cryopreservation or cryonics have been used to store bodies or brains, with the hope that future technologies will be able to revive these individuals. Technologies are being explored to “upload” and store minds, memories, and personalities digitally, in order to “run” these avatars indefinitely. Organ transplants have been common for some time, with new innovations pointing the way to new organs that are printed or grown on demand for ailing patients. Research institutes and conferences address life extension and long-term coexistence of humans, cyborgs, robots, other animals, and even extraterrestrials.
Some of these resemble visions from one of Timothy Leary’s research studies, but one cannot deny that humans are already living longer. Furthermore, the longer we live, the more we are faced with new obstacles. I often use a wholly unscientific cancer example. The average caveperson wasn’t lucky enough to die from cancer. Their life usually ended by chronic saber-tooth tiger. Over the years, the tigers disappeared, life got easier, and those former cave dwellers started to live longer – long enough for cancer or heart disease or obesity to kill them. As we tackle these diseases with better prevention, detection, and treatment, we are “rewarded” with the next disease that we never had the privilege of facing.
Sure enough, longevity has evolved from legend to science fiction to fringe experiments to funded research and funded companies. The title of a recent STAT article says it all: “No more ‘playing God’: How the longevity field is trying to recast its work as serious science.” While extreme life extension initiatives continue, some of the more recent and prominent work is on extending healthy life more than simply extending life. Healthspan (a topic recently addressed by my BITT colleague, Jon Warner, in “Why Digitized Data will be a Game Changer for Life Sciences!”) is the emerging label for this area. Last year, at Longevity Summit Dublin, Bernard Siegel, a veteran leader of the Regenerative Medicine Foundation and Stem Cell Action Network, launched the new nonprofit organization, Healthspan Action Coalition, which includes industry leaders like Foresight Institute, Lifespan Extension Advocacy Foundation, and National Stem Cell Foundation.
Recently, I had the privilege of speaking at the inaugural HEAL (Healthspan Ecosystem Advancing Longevity) Summit. The premise of this new event series (which continues in May with a larger industry forum at BioscienceLA) is that “longevity is the industry of the future coming of age in 2023, bringing together global healthcare, global wellness, and global fitness, which “will be enveloped into the explosion of the longevity market as humanity discovers novel ways to optimize healthspan.”
It was an honor to lead a discussion on “Building An Impactful Community Among Diverse Stakeholders” among leaders like Healthspan Action Coalition’s Melissa King, Quantgene’s Jo Bhakdi, and Roots Food Group’s James Kelley, but what really excited me was the diversity of attendees, industries, and technologies represented. Not only is longevity not a fringe field anymore, but it is bringing together researchers and entrepreneurs from numerous fields:
- Nutrition: “Food as medicine” is a concept that continues to gain ground. Better nutrition, customized for individuals, is an important component of wellness and disease prevention, augmenting healthspan by supporting healthy aging and reducing incidence of disease.
- Wearables: A better understanding of health metrics is critical to understanding healthspan drivers. Wearables also can help to motivate activity, which is critical for healthspan (“The ‘active grandparent hypothesis’: New research explores how we’ve evolved to move more and live longer”).
- Genomics: Like wearable data, genomic data are being used to understand healthy aging, disease prevention, early disease detection, and personalized treatments.
- Psychedelics: Once a taboo topic (despite or perhaps due to Leary’s efforts), psychedelics are making front page news for legal applications for mental health, anti-aging, and brain function. I’ve been to several events recently, in addition to HEAL, where psychedelics were featuring alongside clinical trials for “traditional” pharmaceuticals.
- Pharma: Those more traditional companies are not resting on their laurels either. As STAT noted, “Several of the Big Pharma companies … at JPM … were beginning to build their strategy for aging.”
As Jon Warner, Debbie Lin, and I have shared, foundational work in data synthesis and decision making will continue to be critical in healthcare innovation – including work on longevity and healthspan. There are potentially impactful and certainly visible efforts by individuals like entrepreneur Bryan Johnson, who was recently profiled in Bloomberg (“How to Be 18 Years Old Again for Only $2 Million a Year”). Balancing that out, there are population studies like the longitudinal SuperAgers Initiative, which is collecting data on those who have lived to 95 or more.
Regardless of whether these efforts create radical life extension or help all of us live our lives with more health, I am excited to see how this multi-faceted work can have an impact. The journey just may be the reward.
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