The longevity industry is focused on the production of therapies that target mechanisms of aging. The goal is to slow the progression of aging by making metabolism more resistant to the damage that is present in old tissues, or, better, to produce rejuvenation in the old by repairing that damage. The laboratory data of recent years, particularly animal studies of senolytic drugs capable of selectively destroying senescent cells, has convinced a great many people that this is a plausible near term goal. More than a hundred biotech startups are working on therapies that address mechanisms of aging. Not all will succeed, and not all of these projects are worth undertaking in the first place, given the small benefits that are the most likely outcome - but there are scores of important projects that may add significantly to the healthy human life span.
Longevity is understood by many as the extension of average healthy lifespan - or healthspan. Short of the camp Hollywood fantasy of "living forever", the longevity industry has its sights set on a world without age-related disease, rather than a world without mortality per se. Longevity businesses are therefore biotech companies that target specific age-related processes, enabling the eventual end-user to live an optimal life.
Remy Gross, vice president of business development at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, one of the world's foremost research centres on ageing and age-related diseases, says that the goal to reach 120 years of age is logical. Mammals typically live roughly six times the length of birth to maturity, he says; if you argue that humans mature at 20, that puts us on track for a 120-year lifespan. Established in 1999, the institute comprises researchers-turned-companies that look at the underlying fundamental mechanisms of ageing or biochemical pathways that accelerate dysfunction, whether that be cancer, heart disease, metabolism, or cellular senescence.
"In the past five years, in particular, there has been a sea change," Mr Gross says, attributing it to the rise of Buck spin-out Unity Biotechnology, a company focused on cellular senescence, and Google's moonshot secretive ageing company Calico. "A lot of people looked at Calico and said 'If these guys are buying into it, there's got to be something here'," he remarks, adding that in a short space of time, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs started to see potential for a tractable business model. Fast forward to today's COVID-19 pandemic, whose impact on the scientific community and the public perception of science has "emboldened" innovators and investors alike, he continues. "We should be able to get bigger answers out of better questions."