In this day and age, the biggest difference a billionaire can make to the near future is to fund medical research. The costs of that research are falling rapidly with progress across the board in biotechnology, and the foundation for transformative new medicine can be created with a fraction of one billionaire's net worth, if spent wisely. Perhaps a bigger incentive in some cases than making the world a better place is that research can move from start to finish rapidly enough for those who fund it to benefit. We all age and suffer from age-related disease in the same way, no matter what our net worth, and everyone wins or everyone loses together in the game of medical development. Thus there is every incentive for someone with enough money to make a difference to take aim at the medical conditions that he or she will likely suffer in the decades ahead, and in doing so fix the problem for everyone. In a way it is very surprising that so few people do this. That, I think, is changing slowly, however. A realization of the potential for near future medicine to effectively treat aging and age-related disease is spreading, even though most people pay little attention to this sort of thing until they need something done.
Of course while the cost of research in the life sciences has fallen dramatically, the cost of regulatory compliance and commercial development has gone the other way. There remain tremendous problems and costs once at the stage of clinical translation, all the result of the perverse incentives produced by heavy regulation and the consequent regulatory capture, but once a new class of therapy is prototyped and ready there are (a) plenty of groups in the Big Pharma industry willing to take a run at it with their own funds, and (b) other avenues beyond trying to gain FDA approval, such as overseas development and medical tourism. Solving the problem of any specific medical condition, and that includes aging itself, is almost entirely the challenge of producing a working therapy with sufficient animal data to gain the interest of established developers. Once over that hurdle, allies with deep pockets emerge and matters progress.
I'm sure you're all familiar with how some of the wealthier individuals in the English language world have chosen to channel significant resources into medical and life science research. Paul Allen picked understanding the human brain as his first goal and cellular metabolism as his second. Bill Gates aims at the worst of the remaining prevalent infectious diseases, such as malaria. Denny Sanford chose to reinforce later stages of stem cell therapy development. The Google cofounders are focused on aging, though of course everyone and their dog in this community has an opinion on how they are going about it in the wrong way. Aging was also the target for Paul Glenn. There are numerous other examples, and recently Sean Parker picked the growing field of cancer immunotherapy for his new research initiative:
The Parker Institute was created through a $250 million grant from the Parker Foundation. The Institute's goal is to accelerate the development of breakthrough immune therapies capable of turning cancer into a curable disease by ensuring the coordination and collaboration of the field's top researchers, and quickly turning their findings into patient treatments.
Over 40 laboratories and more than 300 researchers and immunologists from the country's leading cancer centers are part of the network. Each Parker Institute research center receives comprehensive funding, and access to dedicated research, clinical resources and the key technologies needed to accelerate development in cancer immunotherapy. In a unique agreement, the administration of all intellectual property will be shared, enabling all researchers to have immediate access to a broad swath of core discoveries. A scientific steering committee of the field's leaders will set a research agenda and coordinate world-class research teams focused on the most pressing and promising scientific questions.
The commonality in these initiatives is that they all set forth to reinforce or transform or finalize a field that had already become a part of the research mainstream. Each had gone through a long period of bootstrapping, validation, and development well before the high net work individuals came into the picture. Organizations do not commit nine-figure sums of money to anything other than mainstream, well-supported initiatives, and when thinking about these things, is probably best to consider a billionaire as being the figurehead in a sizable organization. All such large-scale decisions are much more political and collaborative than the naive viewpoint might imagine, no matter who allegedly has the final say over disposition of finances. High levels of risk tend to be ruled out pretty early in any decision process that involves more than three humans, and this is just human nature at work.
Why has no-one stepped in to put a few hundred million dollars into getting SENS rejuvenation therapies to the prototype stage? The answer to that question is that SENS rejuvenation research programs have not yet taken over the aging and broader medical research mainstream, but remain a small faction. They are clearly heading in the right direction, with a growing number of leaders in various field of research and medicine openly providing support for the SENS position of damage repair, and the first classes of therapy are under development in a few startups. Clearly more support, more study data, and more bootstrapping is needed, however. It will be very interesting to see this unfold over the next decade as, for example, senescent cell clearance moves from theory with good backing to "it extends life in mice" to clinical treatment for humans to robust data in humans showing reduced symptoms and risk of age-related disease. Concurrently, other SENS therapies, such as cross-link clearance will be following the same path, a few years behind. Eventually it will be impossible to ignore the fact that the damage repair approach works, and that is when very large donations will start to appear.
To look at the situation for cancer immunotherapy, it has been evident for the past twenty years or more that the next generation of cancer treatment would involve proficient targeting of cancer cells, so as to maximize impact to the cancer and minimize or completely remove side-effects for the patient. Immunotherapy has been a strong contending technology platform for a decade, and in the last five years or so it has been the obvious basis for most of the next generation of targeted cancer therapies. So consider that the Parker Institute arrives something like ten years after the people who mattered in cancer research and related funding institutions became convinced that immunotherapy was something to put serious effort into, the point at which it became mainstream. From this sort of fuzzy and very subjective view of history, I'd judge we are at least ten to twenty years from the similar final avalanche of support for rejuvenation research programs - which will make the time between now and then an era of increasing availability of early rejuvenation therapies after the SENS model, human trials, and a great deal of very interesting data on effectiveness. How long it actually turns out to be is very much up to us. The more we do now, the faster we progress to the point at which large-scale funding arrives to seal the deal.