On a velvety March evening in Mandeville Canyon, high above the rest of Los Angeles, Norman Lear’s living room was jammed with powerful people eager to learn the secrets of longevity. When the symposium’s first speaker asked how many people there wanted to live to two hundred, if they could remain healthy, almost every hand went up. Understandably, then, the Moroccan phyllo chicken puffs weren’t going fast. The venture capitalists were keeping slim to maintain their imposing vitality, the scientists were keeping slim because they’d read—and in some cases done—the research on caloric restriction, and the Hollywood stars were keeping slim because of course.
When Liz Blackburn, who won a Nobel Prize for her work in genetics, took questions, Goldie Hawn, regal on a comfy sofa, purred, “I have a question about the mitochondria. I’ve been told about a molecule called glutathione that helps the health of the cell?” Glutathione is a powerful antioxidant that protects cells and their mitochondria, which provide energy; some in Hollywood call it “the God molecule.” But taken in excess it can muffle a number of bodily repair mechanisms, leading to liver and kidney problems or even the rapid and potentially fatal sloughing of your skin. Blackburn gently suggested that a varied, healthy diet was best, and that no single molecule was the answer to the puzzle of aging.
Yet the premise of the evening was that answers, and maybe even an encompassing solution, were just around the corner. The party was the kickoff event for the National Academy of Medicine’s Grand Challenge in Healthy Longevity, which will award at least twenty-five million dollars for breakthroughs in the field. Victor Dzau, the academy’s president, stood to acknowledge several of the scientists in the room. He praised their work with enzymes that help regulate aging; with teasing out genes that control life span in various dog breeds; and with a technique by which an old mouse is surgically connected to a young mouse, shares its blood, and within weeks becomes younger.
At a laboratory outside San Francisco, money from the founders of Google maintains a large number of naked mole rats. The hairless rodents require exacting, expensive conditions to thrive: they live in coöperative colonies like ants, led by a queen rat. But what is truly extraordinary is that they can live about 30 years—10 times longer than a mouse.
The rodents belong to Calico Labs, short for the California Life Company. In 2013, the cofounder of Google, Larry Page, announced that his company would form Calico and fund it lavishly to carry out a long-term project, trying to sort out the causes of aging and do something about them. The company’s mission: to build a Bell Labs of aging research. It hoped to extend the human life span by coming up with a breakthrough as important, and as useful to humanity, as the transistor has been.
There are reasons to think aging can be slowed in fundamental ways. Among Calico’s first hires was Cynthia Kenyon, now its vice president of aging research, who 20 years ago showed that altering a single DNA letter in a laboratory roundworm made it live six weeks instead of three. There is something hair-raising about Kenyon’s videos of old, should-be-dead worms wriggling vigorously across a petri dish.