“I don’t plan to die:” The immortality movement is going mainstream

“I don’t plan to die:” The immortality movement is going mainstream
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In his 1971 State of the Union address, president Richard Nixon promised to kick off what would soon come to be known as the War on Cancer, asking congress for a $100 million appropriation to launch a campaign for finding a cure. “The time has come in America when the same kind of concentrated effort that split the atom and took man to the moon should be turned toward conquering this dread disease,” he said. “Let us make a total national commitment to achieve this goal.”

Soon after that statement, with the signing of the National Cancer Act of 1971, Nixon effectively created a public movement against the disease. Although the word “war” wasn’t used in the legislation, cancer effectively became public enemy #1—across the nation, there was a fervent belief that scientists were on the cusp of understanding it. What’s more, Nixon’s declaration and legislation resulted in a renewed focus on finding a cure for cancer, which meant that the resources and funding dedicated to studying the disease were expanded.

Nixon’s campaign never conquered the disease—cancer remains the second-leading cause of death in the US, as it was 40 years ago—but this (somewhat perceived) lack of progress hasn’t stopped other causes from emulating it. The next target: Aging and death itself.

The war on death

The radical life extension community—a hodge podge of individuals that runs the gamut from Harvard scientists to radical anti-death warriors—is taking cues from the fight against cancer to launch its own crusade. Mobilizing a kind of collective zeal around fighting aging is now a priority, and its leaders and activists are now taking to Ted Talks, Google conferences, newsletters, advocacy groups, and journal submissions to endorse a “war on aging” as the next campaign to get a government co-sign.

Futurists, immortalists, biotech CEOs, scientists, and biohackers all back anti-aging as a cause. And at the annual Undoing Aging conference in Berlin this March, the clash of all these disparate groups was on full display. One of the few lay people in attendance, an emergency room worker, commented that the event had a “christian scientology” sort of vibe, while a young X Prize analyst told Quartz that “yeah, it feels kind of like a cult.”

Celebrity immortalist Aubrey de Grey was host, meaning that discussions about eternal life were definitely on the table. For instance, José Cordeiro, a charismatic engineer, author, and politician, spoke on a panel about political activities and is currently running for the European Parliament on a “death-is-optional” platform. Cordeiro gave Quartz his elevator pitch over coffee: “I am an immortalist. I don’t plan to die, in fact, I plan to get younger… We are on the brink of scientific discoveries that will let us rejuvenate people. We’ll be able to stop aging and reverse aging.” When pressed on this point, he pointed to hydras and HeLa cells as proof of concept: “if cancer can figure out how to be immortal, so can we. People are realizing that ending aging—undoing aging—is going to happen in a matter of time.”

For an immortalist or transhumanist—movements dedicated to the defeat of death, operating under the belief that the human race will evolve beyond its current physical and mental limitations through scientific and technological advancements—statements like these are by no means a radical.

But it would be a mistake to think all of the hubbub around extending life is just bravado and fringe-science.

The Undoing Aging conference focused largely on the science and business of life extension—and boasted an impressive roster of leading aging researchers. It’s a scientific category that has been enthusiastically green-lighted by Big Tech, and many of the Silicon Valley-based backers of life-extension research—among them Peter Thiel, Larry Ellison, and Bill Maris—are outspoken about their goals for eternal life. Calico, Google’s aging research venture, has even been described as the company’s “Project to Solve Death.”

In the past several years, a wave of longevity-focused venture capital firms have sprung up to fund aging research and bring its discoveries to market. At least a quarter of the audience at the conference was made up of investors (including billionaire longevity VC Jim Mellon) and the X prize analyst who made the cult comment was there on behalf of investor Sergey Young, who launched the $100 million Longevity Vision Fund earlier this year and is now sponsoring X Prize’s latest Impact Roadmap, which is what the organization uses to evaluate whether something might qualify to be a future X Prize competition.

But even with Big Tech’s credibility and money behind it, it’s hard for life extension to be taken seriously as a cause when some of its loudest proponents are also the ones making claims of eternal life, bionic bodies, and reanimation after cryonic preservation.

The radical life extension community has realized that, like any good campaign, they’ve got to sort out their messaging.

Immortality’s PR pitch

Keith Comito heads up one of what he describes as one of the “PR arms of the life extension movement.” An affable New Yorker whose day job is as an app developer for Disney, Comito is the co-founder and president of the Life Extension Advocacy Foundation (LEAF), which provided Quartz with a partial travel grant to attend the conference.

Comito explained that the strategy LEAF is following “is very much inspired by that of the early cancer advocates.” He says that step one is creating calls-to-action around “credible, longevity-focused research breakthroughs,” like those showcased at aging conferences like this. LEAF has highlighted these breakthroughs with social media campaigns and influencer partnerships. For instance, a video series collaboration with the popular YouTube animator Kurzgesagt trended on the platform, adding thousands of users to LEAF’s social network (the organization’s Facebook page boasts almost ten times more Facebook followers than the National Institute on Aging (NIA), the US government division that leads aging research.) LEAF also has a crowdfunding arm that raises cash to support aging research, holds webinars, and produces a monthly podcast.

Likewise, co-chair of the Europe-based Healthy Life Extension Society (Heales), Didier Cournelle, who spoke at the conference, told Quartz that his organization is essentially the LEAF of the European region. It hosts a bi-annual conference, sends out a monthly newsletter (called “The Death of Death”), and hosts fundraising events like dinners and concerts. The Europe-based International Longevity Alliance, meanwhile, is an advocacy group known for spearheading a major goal of the life extension community: The categorization of aging as a disease.

Aging is not recognized as a disease by the World Health Organization (WHO) and is described as a “risk factor” by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Getting aging classified as a disease—although a semantic change—would be a step closer to reproducing something like the War on Cancer. In other words, it would increase recognition, funding for research, and help facilitate a path to regulatory approval for pharmaceutical treatments that target it.

A proposal sponsored in part by the International Longevity Alliance put aging a step closer to this goal last June, when the WHO introduced an extension code to categorize certain diseases as being age-related. It included this code in the new version of the International Classification of Diseases, a touchstone diagnostic tool used in medicine to classify and monitor causes of injury and mortality that plays an important role in the registration of new drugs and therapies.

The goal of these advocacy organizations and others like them is to change the public perception around longevity and rejuvenation therapy as separate from the more extreme ideas of living in the cloud and merging with robots that get more attention. And while many of these advocacy groups do subscribe to life extension’s more radical beliefs, most of their initial goals are exceedingly practical and humanitarian: they want more funding for aging research and education; they want policymakers and regular people to understand that aging can be targeted through lifestyle changes, and potentially with drug therapies; they want universal healthcare focused on preventative care that lengthens healthy lifespan and lowers egregious healthcare costs; they want more efficient and more ethical systems for clinical trials, and programs that retrain, mentor, and value older citizens.

Comito calls the goal “true and widespread sociopolitical change.”

A “cure” for aging

Matt Kaeberlein, president of the American Aging Association and professor of pathology at the University of Washington, isn’t opposed to the sentiment of anti-aging as a cause. “Those are important goals” he said over email, “but I would caution not to fall into the trap of talking about a “cure” for aging, as that is pure science fiction at this point.” He adds, “We are not going to cure an individual’s aging like we might cure an individual’s cancer, despite the hyperbole thrown around by the pseudoscience crowd.”

And there is hyperbole: A “cure” for aging, like we thought there might be a cure for cancer 40 years ago, is not within reach, despite what Silicon Valley, Parliamentary candidates, and life extension celebrities might say. Nonetheless, there are still ways in which classifying aging as a disease could be helpful. Judith Campisi, a pioneering aging researcher and scientific co-founder at the Jeff Bezos-backed Unity Biotechnology, noted over email that “from a regulatory point of view, it is important that aging be classified as a disease so that broad-acting drugs can receive approval,” but in an earlier conversation cautioned not to bank on the optimism of immortalist figures: “they’re just confusing aging with death,” she said. “I’m not optimistic that we will, in a couple of decades, defeat death. But I am optimistic [that we will] make great strides in aging.”

Felipe Sierra, a biochemist and director of the division of aging biology at NIA, is also optimistic that life expectancy will increase within our lifetimes—though to ages like “85 or 89, nothing dramatic.” But, as Campisi notes “the focus on length of life just glides over very complicated biology that in the end, there’s no guarantee we’re going to have a handle on.” Kaeberlein echoes this sentiment: “I think that only people who don’t understand biology would ever accept the idea that we can cure aging. I think that it’s realistic to think that we can slow it down.”

It remains to be seen if a War on Aging is in the near future, but in its current phase, the life extension movement is still rife with misinformation. As the crusade against death continues to gain momentum, it can’t hurt to keep in mind that throughout mankind’s nearly 3,000-year history of trying to escape the reaper, every single one of us has ended up six-feet under.