Why anti-aging has become a haven for scammers
Vitaly Ponomarev, "Snob"
The hope of canceling old age and living forever attracts not only scientists and investors, but also scammers to the anti-aging industry. Today, the market is flooded with projects promising to invent a magic remedy that will rid the body of the power of time. But in reality, the aging process is too complicated to find a universal cure for it. The search for a suitable solution can take decades, says Vitaly Ponomarev, founder of the deep–tech company WayRay and the Centaura project, aimed at finding ways to prolong human life.
The anti-aging market is somewhat similar to the cryptocurrency industry: companies that are engaged in real projects, in this field, according to my feelings, no more than 2%, and the remaining 98%, unfortunately, are mostly scammers. In general, the complexity of biotech serves as a good cover for unscrupulous entrepreneurs: often investors who do not have deep knowledge in biology and medicine buy into loud statements and invest in dubious initiatives. Remember the loud scandal with Theranos, in which many famous billionaires invested, including the owner of News Corporation Rupert Murdoch – in the end, the whole project turned out to be a grand scam. There are many similar examples in the field of aging: for example, last year the startup Ambrosia, which specialized in transfusion of "young blood" to elderly people, closed. There was no loud scandal here: the company ceased its activities immediately after the FDA announced the insecurity of this method.
The general situation in the industry is well illustrated by a study by a group of scientists from Stanford University led by John Ioannides: a year ago they analyzed 48 "unicorns" in the field of medicine and biotech and found that a quarter of them have no peer-reviewed publications at all, and half of the articles have never been cited. But this did not prevent them from overcoming the $1 billion valuation threshold and continuing to develop and attract money. There are whole funds that finance biotech startups, including in the field of antiaging. States are moving away from this area, preferring not to invest in high–risk projects, so there is a lot of private money here - and at the same time, it is very difficult to determine whether a fake project is or not, without a background in bioinformatics. Even the participation of recognized experts in the project does not guarantee that the founders have serious goals: there are often cases when honorary professors sign up for obvious dummies – for money or by mistake, as was the case with Theranos. Therefore, I would not advise investors without appropriate education to finance such initiatives at all: the probability that you will invest in something wrong is extremely high.
The time factor
Biohacking, which is now popular in Silicon Valley, attracts a lot of technology entrepreneurs, and not by chance: it's easy to believe that you can transfer familiar IT methods to biology and just as easily "hack" the human body. But disappointment comes very quickly: in biology, any developments require much more effort, money and time than in other industries, and even more so in the field of aging. And the time factor is very important: venture investors are not eager to invest in projects that will begin to make a profit only in 20 years – this goes beyond any investment cycles.
A good example is the Google–based company Calico LLC, one of the most powerful institutions in the field of anti-aging. In 2018, several top executives left the project, and recently the ex-CEO of the company, Bill Maris, said that he was disappointed with the progress made in the fight against aging since his departure from the company. Signing up for long–term projects with unclear results is not the most attractive idea: everyone wants quick money and quick results. That is why today there are so many companies offering ready–made solutions - but for the most part these are ordinary dietary supplements or other drugs that have nothing to do with evidence-based medicine and even more so with the biology of aging.
Mice and rollbacks
Aging is a very complex process. The set of its markers is different for each individual, even more – it is different at every moment of time. It is impossible to create a universal therapy: old age, most likely, will have to be treated continuously. In addition, the mechanism of age-related changes is still unclear. There is no formula with which to calculate the sequence of attacks of the factors of this process for each person, there is no common understanding of what biological age is and how to determine it. We can't immediately start inventing ways to combat aging – first we need to learn how to measure it.
Despite the hype in the market, no one has even come close to finding a working method yet. Yes, there are relatively successful results of experiments on mice and frogs, but they cannot be automatically transferred to humans: the difference in the structure of organisms is too great. So, a few years ago it was found that metformin increases the lifespan of bats, but no one has been able to get any tangible results for humans with this drug until now.
Now there is a lot of talk about epigenetic rollback – on the one hand, this is a very attractive method, since it can be used to turn old cells into stem cells, and then differentiate them back. But on the other hand, this is a dangerous path, because the cell can differentiate in the wrong way: for example, into a cancerous tumor. There are many other risks: for example, no one knows whether the rollback is applicable to brain cells and how it can affect its work.
Big data, big money
If we talk about the situation as a whole, there are several disparate hypotheses, experiments and proposals on the market right now, but no one can offer a holistic approach. It is not enough to find mechanisms of intervention in a living organism – they already exist. First you need to understand how the mechanisms of aging work, learn how to determine the relationship between the markers of these processes for each individual and find a way to influence these markers.
We at Centaura are currently working on this task, but it requires huge efforts, resources and time. So, we expect the appearance of the first product no earlier than 2035 – and this is provided that someone else besides us who knows how to work with big data enters the market. To find patterns in the aging process, you need to analyze hundreds of thousands of samples, and here you can't do without artificial intelligence – without it, our work will resemble searching for a needle in a haystack. In addition, this is a very expensive initiative: if we talk only about samples, the cost of one sample starts from a thousand dollars – and the total project costs already reach several million dollars a year. And tens of millions are needed for a qualitative leap.
Centaura is currently working on two large projects – an artificial human chromosome and the so-called Aging Profile.
The Aging Profile, or aging profile, is based on the hypothesis that all people, organs and systems age differently and in order to stop this process, you need to learn how to identify a personal set of aging markers. In turn, this will make it possible to select individual interventions for a person: either existing ones that have proven to be safe, or new ones, such as our gene therapy. But before that, you need to study the degenerative cellular and molecular processes that lead to the development of age-related diseases, and understand what they are.
Chromosome from diseases
The second Centaura project is an artificial chromosome, or HAC (Human Artificial Chromosome). In fact, this is a new platform, the possibility of which has been talked about for a long time – but we were the first to be able to implement it. HAC is designed to replace CRISPR (a modern genome editing tool) as a more perfect, safe and controlled way to change human cells. Unlike CRISPR, we do not invade the human genome, but create a new chromosome with an information capacity thousands of times larger than that of CRISPR, which allows editing only a few genes at a time.
It is assumed that the necessary genetic information is "loaded" into the HAC, taking into account the individual characteristics of a person, and then the chromosome is added to the cells. This opens up opportunities for the treatment of a variety of diseases, both related to aging and autonomous – ranging from baldness and hypothetically ending with Alzheimer's.
HAC is a more radical initiative than the aging profile, but the aging profile is more capital intensive. It takes a lot of money to collect samples and analyze them – and as a result, we will create a model that by itself will not receive instant practical application. Therefore, we consider the Aging Profile as part of a large project to create an artificial chromosome. Now several of our research groups are working on this task in Boston, Russia, Singapore and the UK under the leadership of Chief Science Officer Joao Pedro de Magalges, professor at the University of Liverpool, the most recognized expert in bioinformatics in the world. This year we have already published our first publication, and we are counting on several more new ones in the near future. But these are still small steps in a big process: according to our calculations, the HAC intervention will be tested by 2035-2037 – and from that time it will be possible to start slowing down aging.
In general, radical prolongation of life is no longer a fantasy, but a real possibility. But this task cannot be solved quickly and easily: it will require the efforts of many research teams and investors who will soberly assess the situation and not wait for quick results and quick money – and then in the future humanity will be able to come to immortality.
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