Illustration by Nicolás Ortega

Longevity, the Greatest Investment Opportunity of All Time

Billionaire Jim Mellon bets that a “stock market mania” will be sparked by technologies that make people live past 100.

Jim Mellon became a billionaire by pouncing on a wide variety of opportunities, from the dawn of business privatization in Russia to uranium mining in Africa and real estate in Germany. But all of that might eventually look small, he says, compared to the money to be made in the next decade or so from biotechnologies that will increase human longevity well past 100.

Photo courtesy of Jim Mellon

The British investor is so enthusiastic about these technologies that he co-authored a 2017 book about them, Juvenescence: Investing in the Age of Longevity, and launched a company, Juvenescence Ltd., to capitalize on them. “Juvenescence” is a real word — it’s the state of being youthful. Says Mellon, who is 61: “I’m hoping that this stuff works on me as well as on my portfolio.”

Juvenescence Ltd., which has raised $62.5 million from Mellon and some partners, has invested in or is close to confirming investments in nine biotech companies. He won’t discuss most of them. But one of the deals was an 11 percent stake in Insilico Medicine, a company applying machine-learning techniques to drug discovery. Insilico Medicine and Mellon’s company also formed a joint venture called Juvenescence AI to investigate the therapeutic properties of specific compounds. Mellon is particularly optimistic that this venture can develop a “senolytic” drug that helps the body clear out cells that have stopped dividing and can damage other cells.

Then last week, Juvenescence Ltd. invested $3 million in LyGenesis, a company with a novel approach to treating liver disease. Instead of making people wait for liver transplants that often don’t happen in time, scientists at LyGenesis hope to inject liver cells into patients’ lymph nodes and grow miniature livers there.

Mellon has lots of competition when it comes to sparking fundamental breakthroughs in human longevity. Alphabet’s Calico Labs has at least $1.5 billion set aside for it. And he acknowledges that this has been the slipperiest quest in human history. “There have been plenty of people in the last 20, 30, 40, 50, 500 years who claimed they had the elixir of youth and eternal life, but all of it was BS,” he says.

This time, it’s for real, he says, based on his extensive conversations with scientists for his books and his investments. He’s on the board of trustees of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in Novato, California. He also says he has donated money to support a prominent clinical trial of metformin, a diabetes drug that appears to help people live longer. Metformin is cheap, having been around for 60 years, and little money can be made off of it even if the trial is successful, Mellon says. But he thinks it can set the stage for other breakthroughs to come, by proving that “compounds can and will work for extending human life.”

I spoke to Mellon by phone while he was traveling in Europe this week. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What’s making you so optimistic that you and I will live to be 100 or 110?

The first book I wrote about biotech came out at the end of 2012. When [the latest] one came out, we were looking at just five years of a gap. And in those five years, artificial intelligence — which didn’t exist in 2012 — is now very much in the frame for the development of new compounds. A cure for hepatitis C did not exist in 2012. Now, if you’ve got the money — and even if you don’t have the money, because drugs are coming down in price — you can be cured of hepatitis C. Cancer immunotherapy did not exist in 2012, and is fast becoming the standard of care in blood cancers and will ultimately become as important in solid tumors as well, improving cancer survival rates by a dramatic amount. And lastly, most importantly, CRISPR gene editing did not exist in 2012.

If you think about what’s happened in the last five years, all remarkable technologies, just imagine what’s going happen in the next five years.

And leaving aside what might be discovered, what might come along in the next five, 10, 20 years, the technology that’s out there right now has the potential to increase human life expectancy. Some of it is not commercially available but will become so. Some of this is in the process of phase 3 human trials, having been used in animal trials and other trials extensively.

So if you think about the manias that we’ve had in the last two or three years — cryptocurrencies and marijuana being the most recent and obvious ones — the fact that the science of longevity or juvenescence is catching up with the aspiration of ultra-long life, and is genuine, could actually lead to the biggest stock market mania of all time.

How do you expect Juvenescence Ltd. will capitalize on this?

We are very early in this land grab. We are very hopeful that we can get at least two or three compounds into the clinic and out of the clinic within the next few years which will have indications beyond longevity, because it’s very hard for anyone to say “I can keep you alive for 30 or 40 years” without hanging around to see if it works.

What are those two or three compounds that are most promising?

Well, we are going to have plenty of compounds by the end of this year, so I can’t tell you which of those are most promising at the moment. We don’t know. But what I can tell you is that we are going to have multiple shots on goal, much more than any other company invested in this field.

I’ve done a few things in my life, but this is by far the most interesting and exciting. Rather than associating old people with being decrepit, people will be robust for a lot longer and will live a lot longer. I’m not a subscriber to Aubrey de Grey’s view that the first person to be 1,000 is alive today. But I do absolutely believe that the first people who will live to be over 150 are amongst us now.

That is just quite amazing. It’s going to change everything in the world. Rather than you and me waking with 24 hours ahead of us, metaphorically, we’ll be waking up with 36 hours ahead of us. It will change everything about the construction of our lives, the trajectory of our lives, the way in which society is organized, the financing of old age and the pensions, the life insurance industry, etc.

Speaking of those effects: why not invest in the opportunities that will arise from so many people living longer, rather than trying to pick the individual technologies that might get us there?

The bottom line is: we’re a drug development company. The consumption patterns of elderly people, the disruption of the social care industry, the psychological help that will need to be given to the increasing population of elderly people, are not areas in which we’re participating.

But I can tell you, just as a flippant aside, that probably the greatest industry of all beyond pharmacology is the cruise line industry. Because people over 70 like going on cruises. The market for cruises will just keep getting bigger and bigger and bigger. There are a few oligopolistic players and I imagine they’re going to carry on doing very well.

Not long ago I interviewed an actuary about how the financial assumptions underlying pensions or life insurance will have to change when people are regularly living to be 100. It didn’t seem like an urgent matter to him. He pointed out that gains in life expectancy are leveling off. Life expectancy in the U.S. is dropping.

The reason life expectancy has stalled in the United States is because of the excess deaths of opioid prescription drug addiction. That has a skewing effect on life expectancy.

In the United States, you suffer from tremendous health inequality. There are pockets of the U.S. where people are living unhealthy lives due to poverty and lack of education and lack of health coverage. That’s a political debate for you guys, not for me to chime in on, but it’s absolutely the case. For people who do have good health care, for those who can afford it in the U.S., the quality is absolutely the best in the world. Their life expectancies are very good. So it’s basically a demographic/economic thing that’s happening there.

Every bit of our life expectancy increase in the last century or so has come from environmental factors. Better sanitation, lower infant mortality, better nutrition, less manual labor and therefore less accidents. None of it has occurred from biological change. There is no evolutionary element that has promoted longevity. It’s only now that biological change is about to happen.

The question then becomes: who benefits, and who doesn’t? And the answer is that a drug that will probably add eight years to average life expectancy is metformin. That will be available to everyone. There will be no one who can’t afford to take metformin. It’s will not be an elite haves vs. have-nots.

“We’ll be waking up with 36 hours ahead of us.”

New drugs like senolytics or rapalogs [drugs related to rapamycin, an antibiotic that is the subject of intensive anti-aging research] are probably going to have 10 years of patent life. Now if we have a long life, 10 years is not that long. So even if those drugs may expensive to begin with and therefore available only to so-called elites, they will in due course become rather like anti-ulcer drugs are today and available to everyone. In the 1980s, anti-ulcer drugs were extremely expensive prescription drugs. Now you can go into Walgreens and buy them for nothing, basically. That will apply to all these drugs.

Stem cell treatments and gene therapies — those will remain expensive because they’re very complicated, and they can’t be produced generically in a low-cost form.

But I’m optimistic that ultimately, everyone who wants it, and I don’t think there are many people on the planet who don’t want to live longer and healthier, will be paying something, even if it’s not very much, toward longevity strategies. The ones that we’ve got at the moment are very primitive compared to what’s going to come, but they are the ones that are going to take us to 110 and 120. What happens thereafter, I’ve got no idea.

Will ultra-longevity lead to overpopulation?

Almost certainly, the long-term effect of longevity is less people, not more.

At the beginning of this process, there’s a short-term increase in population, based on the fact that death rates are not as high as they were. But more important is what happens at the bottom end, the input of new human beings into the equation. And there is absolutely no doubt that as people get more affluent and as their life expectancy increases, the number of children per woman declines. It’s a fact across every single economy we’ve observed.

What are you taking to extend your own longevity?

Every single person in the longevity area takes metformin. That’s kind of a given. If you do take it, you should take vitamin B12 with it, because gastric side effects are obviated by doing that. And then, depending on your own circumstances, one of the statins probably is not a bad idea, a low-dose statin. Mini aspirins, if you can tolerate it in your stomach, will reduce your risk of a heart attack or stroke. Then there’s the NMR precursors, like the Basis drug you can buy over the counter on a monthly basis, which probably improves your sirtuin health, therefore leading to mitochondrial improvement [sirtuins are proteins involved in regulating cell metabolism]. You won’t do any harm to yourself by taking that. The only problem with Basis is you can only get it in the U.S., and the pills that you’re sent only last for a month. So I’m not taking it regularly, because I can’t get my supply, I can’t get to my apartment in San Francisco every month to pick it up.

So I take mini aspirin three weeks out of four. And I take metformin every day, 500 milligrams of slow release. Observationally, you’re not going to see any effect until you’re 90 or 100. I’m taking it on faith at the moment.