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Death Becomes Her (1992) immortality longevity live forever
Death Becomes Her (1992). Film still

Inside the secretive world of immortality science

From vampiric millionaire Bryan Johnson to lab scientists concocting cutting-edge treatments, the race to solve ageing is heating up – but do you really want to live forever?

You are going to die. That’s not a threat, or yet another warning about existential risks like climate change or rogue AI. It’s just a fact. The one, unavoidable fact of life on our planet so far: that it will, eventually, come to an end. 

Of course, life expectancy today is much longer than it used to be. People are looking younger than ever, too. But still, if you’re born in the UK before the year 2000, the projections say that your chances of ringing in the new century on New Year’s Eve, 2099, are looking pretty slim. If you’re in your mid-20s in 2023, you’ve got about 60 years – and that’s if the existential threats don’t get you first. That’s a little more than 3,000 Saturday nights. A single fly-by of Halley’s Comet. A mere 3,483 reruns of the original X-Files, or 360 issues of Dazed. But what if things didn’t have to be this way? What if we could solve mortality for good?

The answers to these questions are elusive, although there is no shortage of influential institutions and research labs working hard to defer death as we speak. The Academy for Health and Lifespan Research. The SENS Research Foundation. The Coalition for Radical Life Extension. Unity Biotechnology. Sierra Sciences. Life Biosciences. Altos Labs. Calico. The list goes on and on. Approaches range from developing intricate lifestyle plans, to reverse-engineering drugs from immortal jellyfish. Investors include Jeff Bezos, Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and controversial billionaire Peter Thiel. The super-rich fund it, and the very wealthy benefit from it – visiting the increasing number of luxury spas and clinics worldwide to undergo treatments. They call it longevity, but it’s hard not to think of the science as a modern version of the quest for the Holy Grail. The reward? Eternal life. 

With so much cash flowing into this industry, and so much at stake, you’d think that we’d hear more about it. Yes, there are odd headlines about blood boys and life-extending human hibernation, but beyond a few flashy experiments we know very little about what actually goes on behind the closed doors of these shadowy labs and tech hubs. Researching this article, the vast majority of press inquiries were met with stony silence, while the few labs that responded offered polite, but firm, rejection. Individual scientists were guarded, with a tendency to turn into ghosts after the first few emails. The fact is, most people just don’t want to talk about it. A charitable interpretation of this silence is that they’re just too focused on their research to waste time on sceptics. However – in a cultural landscape filled with conspiracy theories about transhumanist technocrats and adrenochrome-harvesting elites – there’s a growing tendency to imbue their secrecy with a deeper, darker meaning.

Then, there’s Bryan Johnson. You might know him as the multimillionaire who drained blood from his teenage son in a bid to extend his own life. Since launching his experimental Blueprint project a couple of years ago, Johnson has evangelised for a holistic approach to anti-ageing at every opportunity. His output – which showcases the expensive treatments he tests exclusively on himself – ranges from magazine interviews, to glossy YouTube vlogs, to “dank memes”. When Dazed emailed him for an interview, he responded the same day: “Looking forward to it.”

A couple of weeks later, Johnson dialled into a Zoom call. Through various treatments involving lasers and light therapy, gene therapies, countless skincare products, a prohibitively precise diet plan, intense workouts, and a regimen of more than 100 pills per day, he’s trying to rejuvenate his skin (alongside the rest of his body… yes, all of it) to the quality of an 18-year-old’s. He also colours his hair, though he’s actively looking for alternatives to rejuvenate the pigment. Onscreen, wearing a tight blue hoodie with a stark backdrop of towering, empty shelves, the 46-year-old looks… pretty good for 46. Under the surface, though, the self-styled “most measured person in history” says that the data tracks more concrete improvements in areas like cognitive ability, mood, and various biomarkers linked to ageing. Plus, he recently recorded six months of perfect sleep scores.

“I’m an entrepreneur,” he says, having made his fortune with companies such as Braintree and Venmo in the 2000s. “I enjoy building products. I enjoy being the product more.”

Here, it’s probably useful to stop and make a couple of distinctions. Immortality science, for one, isn’t quite the same as the science of anti-ageing: the latter aims to extend people’s lifespans and improve health in old age, while the former aims to do away with death completely (making it much more controversial). Then, there’s the issue of lifespan versus healthspan: technically, lifespan is simply about extending the number of years you live for, while healthspan is about extending the years you can remain comfortable and active within your life. Often, though, these are lumped together – and for good reason. “Do I want to live to 140, and spend the last 50 years in my bed?” says Dr George Gaitanos, COO and scientific officer at the Swiss-based health and wellness brand Chenot. “No.”

In fact, Dr Gaitanos has spent the last decade researching new protocols, treatments and biotech with the aim of breaking down these distinctions – health and wellness, lifespan and healthspan. “Everybody’s talking about health and wellness as separate entities,” he tells Dazed. “But we have combined it into one concept, talking about the wellness of our health.” If this sounds like a phrase lifted from glossy marketing materials, then you’re not far off: Chenot maintains luxury retreats across the world, where visitors can choose from a menu of treatments that claim to “reset the body at the cellular level”. However, Gaitanos has a long scientific background; prior to Chenot, he also made efforts to improve the health of “ordinary people” – that is, the ones who can’t afford to pay several thousand pounds for a week in Switzerland or Montenegro. Living longer and healthier lives doesn’t just have to be for the ultra-rich, he suggests, adding that he hopes to see a health-oriented shift in our model of living across all levels of society in the coming decades.

Speaking of the ultra-rich, let’s get back to Bryan Johnson. When it comes to lifespan, healthspan, and even purely aesthetic procedures like hair growth or skincare, Johnson does it all. And yes, it’s easy to get lost on the contentious topic of his boyish looks, or the gorier details of his treatments, but on a deeper level this means that he’s pursuing a much more ambitious goal: this is a man driven by a genuine belief in science’s ability to turn back the biological clock and avert death, rather than just kicking the can down the road. “Don’t die” is his mantra, and it’s no joke.

“[Blueprint] was a contemplation of what it will mean to be human in the coming decades and centuries,” Johnson says, looking back on the project’s not-so-humble beginnings. He points out that we spend a lot of time thinking about how to build better technologies – computers, smartphones, virtual reality, or AI – and worrying about their risks. “We spend disproportionately less time thinking about the future of us.”

That said, his vision for the future of humanity often means integrating with these emerging technologies. For example, he’s developed a specialised algorithm to process all of the data he collects about himself, match it up with the relevant science, and turn it into actual anti-ageing treatments. “In a nutshell, an algorithm runs me,” he says. “Initially, when people hear that idea, they think it sounds dystopian. The majority of my time is spent explaining the nuances.”

A certain level of backlash is unsurprising when it comes to entrusting every moment of your waking (and sleeping) life to an algorithm. By now, we’re no strangers to the negative effects that these technologies can have on our lives, from reinforcing racial biases to melting our brains as we scroll through endless social media feeds. Some of Johnson’s treatments, like taking “non-feminising” oestrogen and limiting his contact with sunlight have also proved polarising, but none more so than the vampiric blood transfers, which began as an attempt to address his own father’s cognitive decline, before his teenage son got involved as a “fun family thing”. (The transfers between the two younger Johnsons have since been phased out, having proved relatively ineffective.) The public response ranged from mocking memes to full-blown Satanic Panic. Johnson doesn’t seem to mind the controversy, though; he even enjoys playing the antagonist, at times. Besides retweeting memes and jokes about his vampiric tendencies, he seems particularly keen to compare himself to Jesus Christ. “Jesus fed bread and wine, accelerating ageing and inebriating,” he repeats on our call. “I will feed you with nutrients that nourish and create life… this 2000-year-old character is not up to date with anti-ageing science.”

In his bestselling book Lifespan, Harvard biologist Dr David Sinclair proposes a radical theory about why we age and, eventually, die. The so-called “Information Theory of Ageing” identifies the loss of epigenetic information (the thing that dictates the specific functions of our cells) as a universal driver of biological ageing, caused by unrepaired DNA damage. Sinclair compares this to a DVD getting scratched over time, so that it stops producing images or the images it produces are warped and corrupted. Controversially, he also believes that the “scratches” could be buffed out, restoring the pristine flow of information and completely reversing the ageing process. This is something that he’s already claimed to have achieved in small rodents.

As a world-leading professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, co-director of the Paul F. Glenn Center for Biology of Aging Research, and president of the Academy for Health and Lifespan Research, Sinclair has a fair amount of academic weight to back up such a radical claim. At the same time, many critics complain that his most notable research results are yet to be reproduced, and even his colleagues have called him overly optimistic.

You might have some questions of your own for Sinclair. Most importantly: if we can turn back the biological clock, then how? In his podcast, also called Lifespan, he draws out a few different factors, from (limited) exercise, to diet and drugs, to cold, heat and hyperbaric oxygen therapy. Many of these treatments, he explains, are aimed at boosting NAD+ (or nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide), a compound found in all living cells. According to Sinclair, NAD+ levels are closely linked to DNA repair and the activation of epigenetic proteins called sirtuins, helping fend off the aforementioned information loss. In other words, they could be key to understanding – and one day defeating – the ageing process.

The links between NAD+ and ageing aren’t entirely new. In Dazed, Isamaya Ffrench has previously hailed intravenous NAD+ supplements as a “miracle treatment” for stress- and age-related issues. John Gillen, one of the UK’s leading professionals in addiction recovery, similarly uses the word “miracle” to describe the chemical’s effects and he should know: since stumbling on NAD+ at a specialist clinic for alcoholics in Tijuana, Mexico, he’s spent years immersed in research on its effects, culminating in the foundation of London’s Bionad clinic.

The actual details of what the chemical does in the body are “extremely complicated,” Gillen tells me over the phone. “But, in a nutshell, you just cannot have life without NAD+. It’s as important as oxygen.” Why? Because, as a coenzyme, it’s responsible for transporting the energy from the food we eat to our cells. As we age, though, a process called oxidative stress produces increasing amounts of free radicals in our body, which cause damage to our DNA, and NAD+ is repurposed to help repair it. Less available NAD+ means less energy, as well as more visible changes: “Our hair turns grey, our skin starts to change.” Via in-clinic IV drips and smaller kits that allow users to “microdose” at home, Gillen has made it his mission to slow this process by pumping NAD+ back into people’s systems (though he notes that lifestyle changes, like staying away from alcohol or excessive exercise, offer an even more “fundamental” boost).

It should come as no surprise, by now, that Bryan Johnson has also experimented with daily NAD+ boosters, taking his levels back to that of a 16-year-old. Unlike the likes of Johnson or Sinclair, however, Gillen doesn’t believe in the possibility of radically extending our lifespans, only in making ageing a more comfortable process. “I don’t agree with turning the biological clock back,” he clarifies. “But to age healthier, NAD+ is going to be a serious contender.”

Dr Gaitanos is another immortality doubter. “I’m very, very sceptical,” he says of the emerging hype around life-extending technologies. “I believe that dying will always be inevitable.” That doesn’t mean we’ve hit the theoretical cap on human lifespans yet, he notes, citing studies that place the average maximum age at around 140 or 150. Nor does it mean that some outlier demographics won’t live even longer, as explored in a new Netflix documentary on “blue zones” – places like Okinawa, Sardinia or California, which boast disproportionate numbers of centenarians. What it does mean, is that we can’t put off the chilly embrace of the Grim Reaper forever. It’s not entirely clear, yet, why this should be the case, but Dr Gaitanos’ theory is that we become useless once we lose the ability to reproduce: “From an evolutionary perspective, we are a burden on nature, and from then we’re left in freefall.”

All the pessimists in the world won’t stop people like Johnson or Sinclair from trying to stop ageing, of course, and new technologies are emerging all the time with the potential to rewrite what we know about our own mortality. These range from synthetic biology – the controversial science of redesigning living organisms, AKA “playing God” – to artificial intelligence, which companies like DeepMind have already trained to solve fundamental problems in biology. 

AI is also being used to fight ageing directly, explains Vanessa Smer-Barreto, a researcher at the University of Edinburgh, who has helped pioneer machine learning techniques that drastically speed up the process of drug discovery. In a paper published in Nature back in June, Smer-Barreto outlined this research, reporting the discovery of three new senolytics (which target senescent or “zombie” cells, linked to age-related diseases, for elimination) via algorithms trained on published data. “It could sound like science fiction,” she tells Dazed, but the results speak for themselves: a several hundred-fold reduction in drug screening costs, and a huge chunk of time subtracted from existing research methods.

Once again, this raises the question of how much faith we’re willing to place in algorithms, or how much human input we’re willing to trade off, in the hopes of living longer. For Johnson, the whole endeavour isn’t even a question of staying alive forever, but just long enough that the decisions are completely out of human hands. “Our galaxy is 13.8 billion years old,” he says. “After all that time, we are baby steps away from the creation of superintelligence, which could be the most significant event in the history of the galaxy.” If and when intelligent machines do accelerate past our smartest humans, he adds, it’s going to be impossible for any human to make correct predictions about the future. “I just want to be around to see it.”

Put simply, this is the wager at the centre of Johnson’s Blueprint project: the future will be good (or interesting) enough that it’s worth sacrificing the small and immediate pleasures of the present, in order to make sure he gets there.

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‘We are baby steps away from the creation of superintelligence, which could be the most significant event in the history of the galaxy. I just want to be around to see it” – Bryan Johnson

Unfortunately, not all of us can spend $2 million per year on our personal longevity project, so what’s going to happen to the rest of us? Like Dr Gaitanos, Johnson paints an optimistic picture, his voice tinged with impatience at the question. “Society has answered this question for hundreds of years,” he says. “New technologies are expensive and inaccessible, and then they become accessible and inexpensive. It’s a cycle that [has] happened thousands of times. The people making this argument… it’s weak. It’s ignorant of history. And it misses the objective.”

So, we just have to sit and wait for the tech to trickle down? Not exactly. In the meantime, Johnson adds, he aims to make himself into an exemplary human being, who we can look to for inspiration to change the things available to us in the here and now – things like diet, sleep, exercise and work-life balance. “Based upon what people have told me,” he explains, “Bryan Johnson is an idea in their mind of an alternative to grind culture. An alternative to ‘death is inevitable’. An alternative to feeling hopeless about the future.”

Johnson’s Blueprint protocol – including the approximate costs of his diet, treatments, and rigorous testing – is also available for free online, with a disclaimer that it “does not constitute providing medical advice”. With $2 million per year sunk into his longevity research, it appears that Johnson is operating on a significant financial loss. Then again, this could be just the beginning of a profitable long-term project. Last month, Johnson rolled out the first step in “scaling accessibility” to his longevity routine, in the form of limited edition olive oil – two bottles for $75 (and, with olive oil making up 15 per cent of his daily caloric intake, true Blueprint acolytes are going to get through it quite fast). If you have about $300 per week to spare, it’s also possible to sign up for an official Blueprint meal delivery program.

If all humanity’s greatest feats really are derived from our fear of mortality, then it follows that there’s nothing like the promise of eternal life (or the mere postponement of death) to build a brand around. That’s why luxury retreats backed by longevity researchers can charge eye-watering prices for a short, supposedly life-extending stay, and “basic” NAD+ treatments can set you back almost £400. It’s why David Sinclair is a New York Times bestseller, sold his first company to pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline for $720 million (only to have it shut down five years later with no successful drug development) and currently runs another company valued at about $500 million. It’s why, by 2030, the global anti-ageing beauty market is set to hit a staggering $120 billion.

This isn’t to say that some (or all) of the above aren’t genuinely dedicated to taking humanity to new heights… but should they be regarded with a degree of scepticism? Probably, yes. Because, at the end of the day, it’s difficult to make informed decisions about your longevity for a variety of reasons. While “real” scientists are skittish and reluctant to make any bold claims, the ones who aren’t constrained by institutional rules and regulations offer extremely small sample sizes and hyperbolic marketing campaigns. Even if they are genuine, it will take a literal lifetime to see their results – whether they really have solved the age-old problem of mortality, or merely masked it, like dyeing your grey hairs. Is that really enough to convince you to hand your life over to an algorithm, hook yourself up to an IV and sacrifice all the small pleasures that (as it often feels to us mere mortals) make life worth living in the first place? 

For Johnson, the answer is clear. “When you ask somebody if they want to live forever [you] rarely get a positive response,” he says. “It breaks the human mind. Humans don’t know how to think about forever. But, when you ask them if they want to live tomorrow, almost everybody says yes. The only thing I care about is living to tomorrow.” Endless tomorrows, forever – it’s a tempting prospect, but at what cost?