Let the Rich Try to Buy Back Their Youth

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- So maybe the blood of the young isn’t the fountain of youth after all. The Food and Drug Administration warned last week that the growing business of selling plasma injections to fight the effects of aging “has no proven clinical benefit.” Within hours, one of the leading providers of such services, the startup Ambrosia, announced that it had “ceased patient treatments.”

Nevertheless, one wonders whether all of this is Canute commanding the tide. The business of selling youth to the aging is as old as history, and is likely never to stop. People don’t want to die. They don’t even want to age. The global market for anti-aging products is expected to exceed $330 billion by 2021, according to one estimate. Says Peter Diamandis, the physician and entrepreneur who founded the X Prize Foundation: “Adding 20 to 30 healthy years on a person’s life is likely to be the largest market opportunity on Earth.”

Fear of aging isn’t the same as fear of dying. Lots of people just want to avoid winding up like the struldbrug of Luggnagg, who in Jonathan Swift’s telling lived forever but continued to age. The point is to stop aging itself in its tracks, to avoid entirely the season of life so beloved by the poets, the period when the hitherto reliable body performs with decreasing efficiency all the wonderful tasks through which it once zipped without complaint.

And people are willing to pay a lot to stay young, even when the science seems shaky. Again, consider Ambrosia. Critics initially met the company’s claims with skepticism, and Technology Review called the underlying science “intriguing if inconclusive,” but Ambrosia was able to charge between $8,000 and $12,000 to patients who hoped that being injected with plasma from the young would help them fight off the indignities of aging.

Plenty of others have piled into the field. A startup called Celularity (spun out from Celegene) has attracted some $250 million from A-list tech investors for its research that would use stem cells to battle aging. The British investor Jim Mellon’s startup Juvenescence is promising to break through the 120-year longevity barrier. And whatever may be Ambrosia’s ultimate fate, research about the effect of new blood will continue. A clinical trial underway at Stanford University tests whether injections of plasma from the young can help those suffering from Alzheimer’s.

Often the research raises hackles. Nectome was an M.I.T.-linked startup that got big press early last year for its ambitious plan to pump embalming fluid into the arteries of the dying to preserve body and brain until future scientists can upload the mind. Although plenty of people joined the waiting list at $10,000 a pop, controversy followed once critics pointed out that the technology was necessarily fatal. “Startup wants to upload your brain to the cloud, but has to kill you to do it,” warned the Guardian. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology swiftly disassociated itself from the company, which hastily proclaimed that it was too early to do anything but research.

The tendency nowadays is to mock such technologies as the silly playthings of the worried super-wealthy, mere science fiction unlikely ever to bear fruit. But a tiny probability isn’t a zero probability, and one can imagine a day when some subset of these technologies turns out to work. Maybe consciousness will at last be uploadable. Maybe injections of nanites will at last rejuvenate aging cells. Maybe “The Change” will come.

If it does, it’s unlikely most people will be able to afford it.

And in an age when an entire political movement seems founded on resenting billionaires, it’s not hard to imagine the response: the demonstrations, the investigations, the demands. Protesters will ask why only the richest should have access to these doubtlessly expensive life-extending technologies. It’s one thing to let the rich have much bigger houses. It’s something else to let them have much longer lives.

And after that? Maybe a ban, which are as popular on the left as on the right nowadays. But a ban will do no good because the billionaires will buy an island somewhere and declare it independent, or create one of those long-rumored floating libertarian paradises.

More likely there will be a rush of litigation and legislation, insisting on equal access to whatever the winning technology may be. Governments will swiftly agree, and one country after another will plunge down the rabbit hole. Multiples of gross national products will likely be spent trying to make the processes available to all.

Certainly there will be those who preach that we should forget the billionaires and let them have their fun, while the rest of us pursue normal lives, governed by normal lifespans. But such reactionary counsels will be overwhelmed in the end by the egalitarian ethos. So governments would search for a way to make the benefits available to all.

Some worry that this “posthuman” future would spell the end of history. The survival of future generations rests on our willingness to spend on them, not just on ourselves. There will never be enough resources to preserve our own lives forever while also providing a world for our grandchildren. If our fears drive us in this direction, we may wind up as the last generation.

The drive to reproduce is itself a kind of drive for immortality. If our lifespans grow long, we may stop having children. Longer-lived species tend to have lower fertility (though it isn’t clear why). Certainly there will be less biological pressure to replace ourselves. And it will be hard for the blood of the young to keep us young if there are no young.

Oh, well — surely this is all just sci-fi claptrap. Nothing to worry about in the real world. Because science never surprises us, and new innovations never revolutionize our understanding of life. Right?

Although the intensely religious and the intensely unreligious seem to fear death the least.

Another puts the market at $216 billion.

Actually, the richest already live quite a bit longer than the poorest. A study published in 2016 in the Journal of the American Medical Association found a difference of 15 years among men and 10 years among women.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” and his latest nonfiction book is “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America's Most Powerful Mobster.”

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