Peter Thiel on Longevity Research and the Defeat of Aging

It has always been the case that the cause of serious rejuvenation research needs more well-regarded individuals to stand up and talk in public about the road ahead, the prospects for success, and the righteousness of the goal. Just lay out the situation as it is, no need for salesmanship: it is simply the need for this to be a topic not left on the edge of polite society. Aging is by far the greatest cause of suffering and death in the world, and we should all be doing more than we are to help bring an end to all of that pain, disease, and loss. For that to happen, the vast majority of people who never think about aging and rarely think about medical research need to give the topic at least as much thought and approval as presently goes towards the cancer research community.

We find ourselves in a peculiar time. Technological barriers to the successful treatment of aging are next to non-existent; progress is falling out of the woodwork even at low levels of funding and interest; this is an age of revolutionary gains in the tools of biotechnology, and that drives the pace of medicine while the cost of meaningful research plummets. This isn't a space race situation in which the brute force of vast expenditure was used to wrest a chunk of the 21st century into the 20th and land men on the moon. If following the SENS program aimed at repair of the causes of aging, the cost of implementing the first prototype, working rejuvenation treatments in old mice would by current estimates be only 1-2% of the Apollo Program budget. There was vast popular approval for the space race to match the vast expense. The path to human rejuvenation is in exactly the opposite situation: there is very little support for the goal of treating aging as medical condition, but the costs of doing so successfully are so small that given even a minority of the public in favor those funds would be raised.

This is why advocacy is so very important. This is why people with large soapboxes can help greatly simply by talking on the topic. Investor and philanthropist Peter Thiel has been supporting scientific programs such as SENS and related areas in biotechnology for a decade now, but I notice that he is more vocal and direct in public about this cause now that other organizations such as Google Ventures are making large investments. This is all good; we need a sea change in the level of public support for rejuvenation research, and their understanding of the prospects for the future. Aging is far from set in stone, and a range of the biotechnologies needed to treat aging and bring it under medical control are on the verge of breaking out into commercial development, or just a few years away from that point. All it takes to turn the stream into a rapids is a little more rain.

Peter Thiel's quest to find the key to eternal life

WP: Why aging?

Thiel: I've always had this really strong sense that death was a terrible, terrible thing. I think that's somewhat unusual. Most people end up compartmentalizing, and they are in some weird mode of denial and acceptance about death, but they both have the result of making you very passive. I prefer to fight it. Almost every major disease is linked to aging. One in a thousand get cancer after age 30. Nixon declared war on cancer in 1971, and there has been frustratingly slow progress. One-third of people age 85 and older have Alzheimer's or dementia, and we're not even motivated to start a war on Alzheimer's. At the end of the day, we need to do more.

WP: All your philanthropic projects are founded on the idea that there's something wrong with the way the current system works. What are the challenges you see in biomedical research?

Thiel: I worry the FDA is too restrictive. Pharmaceutical companies are way too bureaucratic. A tiny fraction of a fraction of a fraction of NIH [National Institutes of Health] spending goes to genuine anti-aging research. The whole thing gets treated like a lottery ticket. Part of the problem is that aging research doesn't always lend itself to being a great for-profit business, but it's a very important area for a philanthropic investment. NIH grant-making decisions end up being consensus-oriented, focused on doing things that a peer review committee thinks makes sense. So you end up with a very conservative bias in terms of what gets done. [On the other hand,] the original DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] was phenomenally successful. You had a guy running it, and he just gave out the money. It was more focused on substance and less on the grant-writing process. That's the direction we should go. I worry that right now, we have people who are very nimble in the art of writing grants who have squeezed out the more creative.

WP: You're currently funding Cynthia Kenyon, Aubrey de Grey and a number of other researchers on anti-aging. What was it about these individuals and their work that got your attention?

Thiel: They think far outside the conventional wisdom and are far more optimistic about what can be done. I think that's important to motivate the research.

WP: How long is long enough? Is there an optimal human life span?

Thiel: I believe if we could enable people to live forever, we should do that. I think this is absolute. There are many people who stop trying because they think they don't have enough time. Because they are 85. But that 85-year-old could have gotten four PhDs from 65 to 85, but he didn't do it because he didn't think he had enough time. If it's natural for your teeth to start falling out, then you shouldn't get cavities replaced? In the 19th century, people made the argument that it was natural for childbirth to be painful for women and therefore you shouldn't have pain medication. I think the nature argument tends to go very wrong. . . . I think it is against human nature not to fight death.

WP: Assuming the breakthrough in eternal life doesn't come in our lifetime, what do you hope to have achieved through your philanthropy before you die? What would you like to be remembered for?

Thiel: I think if we made some real progress on the aging thing, I think that would be an incredible legacy to have. I have been fortunate with my business successes, so I would like to encourage, coordinate and help finance the many great scientists and entrepreneurs that will help bring about the technological future. It's sort of not important for me to get credit for the specific discoveries, but if I can act as a supporter, mentor and financier, I think that feels like the right thing.


DARPA is still doing its thing; it's just that it's focused its resources on things like bionics rather than on longevity.

I believe it still wants to regenerate limbs and brain tissue, although all the real articles I can pull are a year old or more.

Posted by: Slicer at April 3rd, 2015 5:27 PM

What's the progress in biotechnology? Most of it is still in the basic research stage. What can we expect by 2020? 2025? 2030?

Posted by: InternetStranger at April 3rd, 2015 10:30 PM

Thank goodness anti-aging science has Peter Thiel in its corner. Now if only he would provide or attract a bit more funding... It confuses me that he is so pro life extension research, but still isn't ready to bet the farm on it. Perhaps he is waiting for more basic technological demonstrations to pan out?

Posted by: Jim at April 4th, 2015 5:31 AM

It is frustrating. It's the tragedy of aid psychology I guess. Most people, billionaires included, want the warm fuzzy feeling.

Posted by: Arren Brandt at April 4th, 2015 9:00 AM

Biologically, early on life was presented with circumstances that provided limited choices of how it might proceed and survive. Future life could have either individual organism immortality - or life could have constant adaptation to its environment through environmental stress genetic adaptive selection reproductive processes. Clearly and logically genetic selective adaptive processes won out as the best strategy for non-sentient life to survive and maintain itself and its position within existing environment - at least genetically as species, if briefly as individuals. Once life set its pathway to reproductive adaptation it alternatively discarded any possible pathways to immortality.

Sentient life in the human form has brought new options to life's original question regarding immortality versus reproduction genetic selection adaptivity. Our sentient abilities have reached a point where our understanding of logical processes has produced the scientific method of problem solving. With our understanding of this process and how it consistently yields more verifiable truths than any other known logical process, we have advanced our understanding of our species' biology to its most basic cellular governing levels.

This understanding now includes the functionality of our own and other species genetic machinery. This is the very genetic machinery that has been the engine of reproductive genetic adaptivity for all present living species. With our current levels of scientific knowledge we are once again being asked the "immortality" question. This time the question fall upon sentient beings - us. We have science to direct our choices and equally important to create options that we have never had before. This time the answer to the immorality question has more than two basic distinct exclusionary pathway choices. In fact, we now can have not only new options, we have the ability to take the eclectic best of all of them without excluding any. We can have immortality, without giving up reproductive/genetic adaptability to environmental change. We even have the ability to repair the mistakes in our genetic code that result from our environment and or just random error - making purposeful changes that enhance our lives.

Perhaps more importantly we now have the ability to optimize our planetary existence as a species in ways that will no longer threaten the planets ecological and environmental balances. We can our species the abilities necessary for living within the planets natural resource cycles and perhaps colonize other planets as well.

However, the choices we are now offered for immortality and self-maintained genetic adaptivity should not be considered available on an unlimited time basis. Our success as a species also depends upon not only how well we make the choices offered to us, but as well how timely we select them. We live on a planet of critical environmental balances and finite resources necessary to maintain the advancement of not just our species, but our science based civilization. If our decisions are too lengthy we will become resource limited and the resulting resource shortages will produce stress levels that historically have caused similar resource-challenged civilizations to descend into irreversible chaos. The hope for immortality and the associated genetic choices or science brings now is a limited time offer. We vacillate at our own species' existence peril.

Posted by: Durwood M. Dugger at April 23rd, 2015 9:54 AM

Post a comment; thoughtful, considered opinions are valued. Comments incorporating ad hominem attacks, advertising, and other forms of inappropriate behavior are likely to be deleted.

Note that there is a comment feed for those who like to keep up with conversations.