There was reason for excitement. In 2016, after Peter Thiel, one of Altman’s mentors, expressed interest in a possible age-defying blood transfusion, he was derided in the media as a vampire seeking young victims. A year later, a parody HBO show was released Silicon Valley killed the bet with an episode called “Bleeding Boy”. In it, a fictional tech CEO takes a meeting while his veins are connected to those of a handsome young man introduced as his “blood transfusion officer.”
“We don’t really want … these old billionaires to have to pay plasma donors to come and donate to them,” Betts-LaCroix told an audience in Europe last summer. Instead, the company hopes to find more “plausible” interventions, such as drugs that mimic the effects of blood replacement and could be used by millions of people, he said.
“We don’t want to discriminate against billionaires. I’m just saying that we don’t want a therapy that is very expensive, inconvenient and difficult to implement,” he added.
For his part, Altman says his personal anti-aging regimen consists of “trying to eat healthy, exercise, get enough sleep” and taking metformin, a diabetes drug that has also become popular in Silicon Valley circles on the theory that it may be able to preserve people’s health for a long time. “I hope to use retro therapy one day!” Altman says.
OpenAI for longevity
One of the reasons anti-aging research may seem like a promising area for investment is that it hasn’t attracted much funding in the past, at least relative to the size of the problem. Nearly a fifth of U.S. GDP — $4.3 trillion, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — is spent on health care, and most of that goes to treating the elderly. A widely held belief among longevity researchers is that if aging can be delayed with medication, it could help delay many serious diseases, including cancer and heart disease.
Betts-LaCroix says that to make the biggest impact, he looks for interventions that can be scaled up to reach “millions or billions” of people.
However, by the time “Retro” came out of hiding, the attack on old age was going through a period of intense popularity. The Saudi government has said it will give out $1 billion in grants annually, and an organization called Altos Labs has been set up, which is said to have received $3 billion. It also had well-known investors such as Yuri Milner and, according to some reports, Jeff Bezos.
Compared to those ventures, Altman’s bet now looks relatively small, even so Retro looks like an underdog. One of his projects is testing techniques for rejuvenating T cells, a part of the immune system that play an important role in fighting infections and preventing cancer. These cells are particularly useful because they can be removed, rejuvenated in the laboratory, and then returned to the patient. But other startups have similar goals, including Altos and NewLimit, a biotech company founded last year by cryptocurrency billionaire Brian Armstrong. Competition for research talent is particularly fierce. Altos dragged half of the top scientists into the reprogramming when he convinced two dozen university professors to leave their jobs by offering millions in salaries, among other benefits.