Barely had he offered himself a trip to space last July than Jeff Bezos already saw much further: to end our sad status as mortals. The founder of Amazon has, in fact, joined the cohort of investors, including Yuri Milner, one of the first shareholders of Facebook and Airbnb, who have bet 3 billion dollars on Alto Labs. The latter claims to reverse the aging of human cells. Objective, to bring life expectancy to 120, then 150 years. And why not beyond?
Delaying the date of our release is the new frontier for Silicon Valley. A whim of billionaires? There is that, but science is advancing. “We are going to decelerate the aging process, it is no longer fantastic”, assures Miria Ricchetti, head of the molecular mechanisms of aging unit at the Institut Pasteur. A medical revolution. Until now, age-related pathologies (cancer, cardiovascular or neurodegenerative disorders, etc.) were treated in a segmented manner.
However, if the genesis of these diseases is linked to a common process, the accumulation of senescent cells, they could therefore be treated by revitalizing the damaged cells. A track confirmed by the major discovery of Professor Shinya Yamanaka, Nobel Prize in Medicine 2012, which showed that it was possible to rejuvenate adult cells and give them back the restorative qualities of embryonic cells.
In addition to the technical difficulty, it will also be necessary to upset the regulations, because old age is not considered a disease. It is therefore not currently possible to design a drug in the rules to cure it.
This dizzying perspective fascinates Californian tech circles who love transhumanist theses. Even before the creation of Alto Labs, investments in start-ups and university laboratories to discover a cure for old age exceeded 2 billion dollars a year.
So far without tangible results. Calico, created in 2013 by Google co-founder Larry Page to identify hereditary factors of longevity, has yet to publish anything. Peter Thiel, the founder of eBay, has had no more success with two of his projects: Unity Biotechnology, in search of cures for cellular degradation, is at an impasse, and Ambrosia, which proposed to inject blood plasma from young people to old people, had to shut down. Closer to a traditional clinical trial and more promising, the tests on 3,000 patients at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester (Minnesota) with metformin, a known antidiabetic which could boost metabolism and slow down inflammation.
On this side of the Atlantic, there is no big boss who dreams of immortality (at least publicly) nor an influential transhumanist lobby, but very good fundamental research on the question. The study of aging was also integrated at the end of the 2010s into the funding of the European Research Council (ERC), which pays around fifty research grants per year to university laboratories specializing in the field.
“In Europe, the idea is much more to help humans live a long healthy life than to imagine a hypothetical existence of 150 years or more”, summarizes Professor Eric Gilson, coordinator at Inserm of AgeMed, the main program devoted to cellular aging in France, which mobilizes some twenty teams, a budget of 60 million euros over five years and develops numerous international cooperations (Netherlands, Great Britain, Singapore, etc.). Launched in 2016, this project aims to advance cell biology to find new and preventive treatments against cancer and degenerative diseases.
Even if budgets are disproportionate to those available to Americans, academic research in cell biology contributes to the development of a fairly promising ecosystem. Not to overcome death but to cure specific diseases. Thus, Professor Jean-Marc Lemaitre, one of the great French experts in the field – his Montpellier team reconditioned cells of centenarians into young cells – created Organips, whose objective is to create functional organs from of stem cells. We could thus eventually perform transplants to replace organs affected by cancer.
We should also mention Smart Immune, in the Paris Santé Cochin cluster, which uses cell therapy to recreate the immune system in leukemia victims. Another example is the Bordeaux start-up TreeFrog, founded by two normaliens, which has successfully raised funds of 61 million euros. His work in cell therapy should make it possible to fight against Parkinson’s disease. First human trial in 2026.
Will these companies be able to compete with the Americans? “It seems complicated, but it’s a more rational approach, summarizes Laurent Alexandre, founder of Doctissimo and tech specialist. Silicon Valley has the means to bet billions, but nothing says that it will be enough to invent eternal youth. .” In short, the one who will live 150 years is not yet born.
The work of European start-ups that could slow degeneration
- Loss of sight
GenSight, a Parisian start-up, has developed a treatment for Leber’s disease, which makes a person blind in a few weeks.
- Parkinson disease
TreeFrog, in Bordeaux, cultivates stem cells to develop neural microtissues that could be transplanted.
The Irish Senolytic envisages the reduction and elimination of senescent cells at the origin of cancer recurrences.
- Alzheimer’s disease
Britain’s Shift Bioscience is researching the losses in cellular energy production that may be the cause.
MedXCell, in Montpellier, has already successfully tested a regenerative treatment based on stem cells to treat this pathology.