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The Case for a Longevity Moonshot

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The Case for a Longevity Moonshot

July 27, 2021

As the government debates spending more money on community college and the child tax credit, there is one form of government spending that could significantly improve the lives of every single person on earth.

It’s time for the U.S. government to devote significant resources to finding a cure for aging and extending the human lifespan. If successful, this research would help people live healthier lives for longer, stop the onset of diseases like cancer, and allow people to spend more time with their loved ones and contribute more to the world.

There has been tremendous progress in understanding aging and showing that it is possible to reverse it, and there is a growing longevity industry validating the approach to treat aging directly. Researchers are using a variety of approaches, from drugs that get rid of old cells to gene and stem cell therapies. Institutions researching aging include the nonprofit SENS Research Foundation, David Sinclair’s lab at Harvard, and biotech companies including Calico (a sister company of Google), Rejuvenate Bio, BioAge, Cambrian, Unity Biotechnology, Juvenescence, Retro Biosciences, and Oisin Biotechnologies.

Both donors and investors see promise in reversing aging. However, there is research that the private sector will not do on its own because investors seek quick returns and donors have only so much money. It has taken seven years to fundraise for clinical trials to see if metformin slows down aging. And there has been more research in mice than in people, partly because clinical trials for people cost more. Basic research is risky, expensive, and without a certain payoff, so important research goes undone because the private sector is unwilling to fund it. The government needs to fill in the gap.

If we discovered a cure for aging, it would make society much wealthier, and the benefits to mankind would be enormous. Increasing life expectancy by one year alone by slowing down aging is worth $38 trillion, according to a recent study—more than the entire national debt of $29 trillion. Finding a cure for aging would significantly boost GDP by allowing people to work for longer. It would also lower the national debt, because higher GDP would lead to more tax revenue, and less would need to be spent on Medicare and Social Security because people would be healthier for longer.

The U.S. government already spends trillions of dollars on reducing elderly poverty and suffering through Social Security and Medicare. Research on aging would likely pay for itself by boosting GDP and lowering the national debt, and it would significantly improve people’s lives. Older people would have a better quality of life, being able to maintain an active lifestyle and live independently instead of being stuck in a nursing home.

It would be more valuable to find a cure for aging than for individual diseases like cancer because it would stop those diseases from materializing in the first place. You’re at much greater risk of cancer and Alzheimer’s at age 70 than at age 30, and a cure for aging could fundamentally change that.

Unfortunately, aging receives only 6% of government health research funding. There has been far more government spending on treating individual diseases, but as Vijay Pande and Kristen Fortney wrote for Andreessen Horowitz, curing cancer would add only four years to the average lifespan “because another major killer like stroke would be just around the corner.” “Only by targeting aging itself can we make significant impact on improving quality of life and healthspan,” they added.

U.S. life expectancy has been roughly stagnant, rising only 7% since 1980. We should target life expectancy as an important measure of national well-being, in addition to GDP. A cure for aging would boost life expectancy far more than finding a cure for individual diseases because aging increases people’s risk of disease.

To its credit, the Biden administration has requested $6.5 billion in funding for a new agency, ARPA-H, which would try to speed up new biomedical advances. The Biden administration has framed the effort in terms of treating and curing disease, but if this agency focused on aging, it could help prevent all of those diseases.

Ideally, ARPA-H would be a standalone agency independent of the National Institutes of Health and contract with outside organizations that can conduct the necessary research. It would benefit from being based in Boston or the San Francisco Bay Area instead of Washington, D.C., in order to be closer to biotech companies. Better yet, ARPA-H could be based in a major city in Texas to create a new biotech hub in a more affordable place. ARPA-H also should actively hire people from outside government in order to foster a sufficiently risk-taking culture. An ARPA-H structured in this way would be a good home for a longevity moonshot program.

There's a strong case that we should spend whatever it takes to find a cure for aging. Nearly 150,000 people die every day around the world. Saving people’s lives is an urgent cause, and Congress should not delay.

This guest post was authored by Bonnie Kavoussi, an entrepreneur and writer based in DC.

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