The life expectancy in the U.S. is 78 years, yet some lucky people live into their 90s and even 100s. Theories abound as to the key to a long life, ranging from boozing it up on the regular to staying away from men. But most scientists will admit that they are still trying to understand how aging happens and why some people live longer lives than others.
Many a diet and drug company has promised it has the secret to longevity, but now businesses with access to people's DNA are trying to uncover the path to longer living. There's a handful of companies getting into this space in recent years as Silicon Valley sets its sights on mortality as the next big problem that needs solving.
Family-tree maker and DNA databank Ancestry.com is the latest company to enter the life extension game. On Tuesday, it announced it's partnering with Calico, a Google-backed biomedical company famous for wanting to help people live forever, to study the genetics of families that age well.
Ancestry will mine its database for families with individuals who have lived unusually long lives. Ancestry's database includes family histories going back hundreds of years, as well as the scanned genomes of more than 1 million people. All Ancestry members who consented to their information being used for research when they first signed up for the site will be included.
The company plans to analyze its data to surface genetic or environmental traits that offer clues as to the biological underpinnings of a long life. Calico plans to commercialize those findings by developing therapeutics that replicate them for other people who weren't blessed with their own natural fountain of youth.
“Our common experience suggests that there may be hereditary factors underlying longevity, but finding the genes responsible using standard techniques has proven elusive,” said Calico CEO David Botstein in a statement. "This is an extraordinary opportunity to address a fundamental unanswered question in longevity research."
Ancestry and Calico join a cohort of companies and researchers who are trying to figure out why some people are blessed with a super long life. A search for "longevity and aging" in the biomedical research database Pubmed yields more than 19,000 results. Earlier this month, the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) published a study in which researchers founds that the rate at which people age varies widely. Stuart Kim at Stanford has an ongoing project on extreme longevity that involves sequencing the genomes of supercentenarians, people who live 110 years or more. The New England Supercentenarian Project, based at Boston University, has been following supercentenarians and their families for more than 10 years.
Then there's Human Longevity Incorporated—a company founded by superstar geneticist Craig Venter, one of the leaders of the Human Genome project— wants "to extend and enhance the healthy, high-performance lifespan and change the face of aging," according to its website. The company was planning on sequencing the full genomes of patients and pairing that information with a detailed profile of all the microbes that inhabit their bodies (known as the microbiome) to see how these different factors contributed to aging and disease. Last year, Human Longevity got $70 million in funding for its research.
The other big genetic player, 23andMe, wouldn't say whether it was specifically working on longevity.
It makes sense that so many players would get into this field. Keeping people healthy longer is a huge economic driver. A 2014 report in the journal Health Affairs found that people 65 and older tended to spend about $18,000 a year on healthcare, more than three times as much as working-age adults. The National Institute on Aging has a budget of $1.1 billion, one of the largest among the national institutes. That, coupled with the growth of America's aging population, explains the nearly 2,000 ongoing clinical trials related to aging.
Even with so much vested interest in longevity research, the genetic (or environmental) fountain of youth has eluded scientists for years. The research has been harmed by retractions and conflicting results. And among the companies now vying to commercialize immortality, there are advantages and disadvantages to how they're going about it.
First off, there's the problem of the type of genetic data used. The Stanford, Boston University and Human Longevity Incorporated projects have a leg up on the Ancestry-Calico collaboration because it relies on genotyping rather full genome sequencing. You can think of genotyping as the genetic equivalent of reading the Wikipedia summary of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. It's easier, cheaper and less time-consuming, but it doesn't give you a full picture of what's going on.
The Venter study may be the most promising because it not only has full genome sequencing, but is bringing in other types of data—the microbiome— which may reveal the role of people's diet, activity or environment.
"If you're going to take a purely genetic based approach, it can be tough," said Joel Dudley, a geneticist at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. "It's likely that…there's a lifestyle component as well."
The other problem with the type of genetic analysis companies like 23andMe and Ancestry are doing is the focus on what's known as common variants, versions of genes that are common in the population. As you may have already deduced, super longevity is not very common, so if there's a genetic component to it, it's likely to be very rare. There are only about 60 supercentenarians in the U.S., and somewhere between 200 and 300 worldwide, according to the New England Supercentenarian Study website.
"It's highly unlikely to me that the longevity genes or therapeutic pathways [they're looking for] are going to be found in the common variants," said Dudley. "It's probably going to be a rare variant, otherwise we would have found the longevity signal by now."
One thing that has plagued genetic studies to date, says Dudley, is the absence of population data. Ancestry has that, which could give it a leg up. Plus, now it's also gathering information on people's health histories, which could further bolster its offerings to the pharmaceutical industry and startups like Calico to make its database even more valuable. (The financial details of the Ancestry-Calico partnership weren't disclosed.)
The Ancestry database trends toward older users, mostly 55 and older, said Ken Chahine, Ancestry's vice president for AncestryHealth and AncestryDNA. While that may give researchers some insights into how people are aging later in life, it does mean that their database may contain important information about how life decisions, living conditions and health status early in life might play into how long people end up living. 23andMe's genetic database, which also recently surpassed the 1 million user mark, trends slightly younger.
"Eventually, if we really want to slow the process of aging to prevent the onset of disease, we're going to have to intervene with young people," Terri Moffit, the Duke University researcher who led the PNAS aging study, told the BBC earlier this month.
That's all to say that the mission Calico and Ancestry are embarking on will be a rough one. Even in their press release, they admit it's a high-risk enterprise. Many have tried, and so far, all pretty much have failed. In other words, death is hard to beat, but by god, we'll die trying.
Daniela Hernandez is a senior writer at Fusion. She likes science, robots, pugs, and coffee.