by Patrick Cox
August 22, 2016
Silicon Valley is taking on healthcare. Armed with billions and a drive to innovate, tech giants have the potential to solve the biggest medical challenges and shake up the regulators.
Already wealthy, these titans of tech are focusing on living longer and healthier lives. Some have even broken the greatest of scientific taboos, admitting that they would prefer, if given the option, not to die.
Pharma and tech are like day and night
I can’t think of two more different industries than pharma and tech. Pharma is the most regulated of industries. For every successful drug, which can take fifteen years from research to market, the industry spends a billion dollars or more. Some of the biggest tech companies, by contrast, started in garages and were funded with credit card debt.
A friend of mine in pharma likens his business to supertankers that take hours just to change direction. Conversely, tech works like a fleet of speed boats able to change course right off. Few regulations restrain their motion.
Healthcare needs more speed boats, so I’m excited to see tech turning to medicine. The choices of those tech billionaires have been disappointing, though. Perhaps this isn’t surprising. After all, IT isn’t biology and success in one field doesn’t always translate to other fields.
Breakthroughs are made, but not yet approved
I frankly admire Peter Thiel, who has given millions to various anti-aging research groups. As have Bill Gates and Larry Ellison.
While the funding is laudatory, research scientists usually try to make discoveries, not implement solutions. This wouldn’t be a problem if there were not unutilized solutions most people have never heard of languishing in labs right now.
Scientists haven’t developed these anti-aging technologies because the regulatory and pharma communities are more interested in treating diseases. As a result, highly promising therapeutics are sitting on the shelf, unavailable to the public. And so Billionaires who want to live longer healthier lives are left with only a few not very effective options.
The potential of “Vampire therapy”
One is the so-called vampire therapy, the transfusion of blood from young people to older people.
The concept came originally from my old friend, science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein. It’s been validated, but the application poses major problems.
In the studies that proved the concept, the circulatory systems of genetically identical younger and older animals were surgically linked. The younger animal’s blood flowed through both animals for extended periods of time.
The procedure, called parabiosis, leads to stunning rejuvenation in older animals. Even Peter Thiel has expressed an interest in the therapy.
However, true parabiosis has serious ethical and practical problems. First, a younger donor’s health seems to degrade at about the same rate that an older animal’s improves. I doubt that such a therapy would ever be approved for general use.
Plus, immune systems of both participants might reject the procedure. Lab rats are all genetically the same so we don’t see immune rejection.
So, human trials have so far been simple transfusions of low volumes of young blood to older people. Transfusions, however, are not the same as parabiosis. Getting young blood, even if it happens every few weeks, cannot have the same impact as true parabiosis.
There are, however, other ways to utilize the concept. The key benefit from parabiosis is the transfer of a gene protein, GDF11. This means that we may get far better results from periodic injections of GDF11 instead of GDF11-rich blood.
An even better solution would be a permanent increase in GDF11 levels. I know of two companies that have the ability to raise GDF11 levels in older people to youthful levels. One is the implantation of stem cells that make GDF11. The other is a DNA vaccine technology able to generate the protein in the patient’s own cells.
Both technologies have already been well studied and validated. In fact, they are shown to produce even more anti-aging compounds in vivo—including growth hormone releasing hormone (GHRH)
GHRH has been tested in thousands of animals. The results were stunning. GHRH produced across-the-board antiaging benefits, including extended health spans.
I’m confident that these anti-aging therapies will eventually be funded and approved. Unfortunately, eventually is not good enough.
Western economies need a solution right now
Western economies are already staggering under the burden of aged populations. Traditional pharma does not solve the problem. So this creates an opportunity for people like Peter Thiel.
I’m sure that the next great financial opportunity is in biotech, especially anti-aging biotechnologies. In a world of old and sick people, what product is more valuable than youth and health?
Most people will be willing to pay a great deal to get the benefits of true parabiosis from a single outpatient procedure. Big pharma, however, is too conservative to exploit the cutting edge discoveries needed to help aging populations. This is sad. The main threat to our economic well-being is the growing financial weight of an increasingly older and sicker population.
And anti-aging biotech is the only way out.
My advice to tech billionaires is to put off asteroid mining and solve the health problems that are bankrupting and killing us.