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Clockwise from left: Bryan Johnson has spent millions on therapies in an effort to reverse his biological clock; Peter Thiel says he will have his body cryogenically frozen when he dies; Jeff Bezos has invested in a startup that flushes out aged cells.Illustration by Photo Illustration by The Globe

PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, 55, has stated that he will have his body cryogenically frozen when he dies in hopes of being revived in a distant future. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, who at 59 looks like he could bench press his 40-year-old self, invested heavily in a startup that aims to keep people young by flushing out aged cells. Neither hold a candle to Bryan Johnson, the 46-year-old tech mogul who has spent US$2-million a year on an extensive list of therapies – from taking more than 100 pills a day to receiving blood transfusions from his teenage son – in an effort to reverse his biological clock.

The anti-aging industry has ballooned to a worldwide value of US$63-billion. Thanks to advances in technology, it has proliferated to include treatments that can be considered affordable. Middle-class Canadians, if they stretch a bit, can now buy injections to stimulate growth hormones, or get testosterone pellets implanted in their butt muscles to stave off signs of aging. Meanwhile, breakthroughs in the field of regenerative medicine are attempting to stretch our lifespans to new limits.

“There are a handful of emerging technologies that are helping people feel young for longer, and I believe they are the future,” said Shawn Seit, an aesthetics doctor at Toronto’s Rejuuv clinic, a privately owned medical centre that administers anti-aging treatments that range from Botox to hormone balancing and peptide therapy.

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Seit, slender with jet-black hair and a near-permanent smile, has been an aesthetics doctor for 20 years, after spending a stint as an emergency room physician. His personal anti-aging arsenal includes hormone balancing coupled with a healthy diet and regular exercise. Like his middle-aged, affluent clients, Seit chooses to see symptoms of old age such as muscle loss and even degenerative disease not as inevitable but as a sickness to combat, or even cure.

“In our society, we just accept that menopause, body degeneration and disease are things you just have to accept and go through when they come,” he said. “But it’s miserable, so why not delay it if you can?”

One of the most popular therapies Seit’s clinic offers is hormone balancing, where clients – often menopausal women or men in their 40s or above – receive doses of estrogen and testosterone to delay signs of aging such as muscle loss, belly fat gain, hot flashes and changes in libido. For longer-acting therapy, patients can opt to receive testosterone through one-centimetre-long, cylindrical pellets implanted in the buttocks three to four times a year. They can access those treatments, along with preliminary blood testing and nutritional counselling, for a crisp $4,000 a year.

For a yearly fee of $4,200, clients can also enlist in peptide therapy, which involves injecting a protein, sermorelin – thought to stimulate the production of growth hormones – into the stomach or thigh.

“People hear about these therapies and think we are looking to transform them into Arnold Schwarzenegger,” he said. “But it’s not about that – it’s about making you feel 30 when you are 50.”

These are far from the most radical or eyebrow-raising anti-aging therapies out there. Toronto’s Longevity House, a 9,000 square-foot facility that opened in 2021 and charges $100,000 for a lifetime membership, offers clients access to a suite of services such as red-light therapy, chakra therapy and electrical muscle-stimulation suits.

In the United States, startup Ambrosia started offering infusions of blood from teenagers and young adults in 2016, charging US$8,000 a litre, only to be shut down that same year after being dubbed unsafe by the FDA.

The dearth of robust scientific studies on these treatments is making some experts question their effectiveness and safety. Brett Finlay, a B.C.-based microbiologist and co-author of The Whole-Body Microbiome, says he wants to wait for results from clinical trials before believing in any trendy anti-aging method. The problem, he said, is the length of time it takes to collect such data. One longitudinal aging study from the Netherlands that set out to study the change in physical, emotional, cognitive and social functioning of people as they age has been continuing since 1992.

In the absence of data, Finlay fears that internet movements such as taking steroids for muscle growth or applying snake venom to wrinkles are motivating demand for quick fixes, which are clouding tried and true healthy practices.

“The truth is that we already have anti-aging methods, but they are incredibly boring and hard: It is exercise, eating a balanced diet with lots of fibre, good sleep and cultivating a good community of people around you,” said Finlay, adding that these lifestyle practices have been shown to reduce stress and inflammation, which are correlated with some of the most prevalent causes of death such as obesity-caused illnesses, diabetes, cancer, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

“Trends and fads come and go, whereas science just plods along and slowly gives us answers.”

While not always flashy, modern medicine and peer-reviewed science have extended the average Canadian lifespan by roughly 30 years since the early 1900s, mainly by decreasing infant mortality rates, Finlay said. However, the average lifespan in Canada has plateaued at around 81 years old since the 2010s, and the next leap could come from the field of regenerative medicine: new treatments to heal tissues and restore bodily function lost to aging or damage.

In January, a research team from Harvard led by biologist David Sinclair paused and even reversed the aging process in mice by essentially rebooting damaged cells to their stem cell state using gene therapy. As a result, old mice that had gone mostly blind regained the ability to see. Sinclair told the Harvard Gazette and wrote on his social media that this reset might one day be applied to humans and allow us to delay or cure diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s, though the researcher also noted that human trials and federal approval would still take many years.

In July, Sinclair’s team discovered that a grouping of chemicals consisting of anti-seizure medication, a cancer drug and a variety of molecules had a similar age-reversing effect in rats. While the cost of these treatments is difficult to predict, Sinclair told reporters this summer that the chemicals would be a “step towards affordable whole-body rejuvenation.”

Canadian research teams are also making breakthroughs in regenerative medicine. Toronto-based medical startup Acorn Biolabs has developed a method of extracting human cells from hair follicles, culturing them as stem cells, freezing them in cryotherapy and storing them for less than $16 a month until they are needed. The idea, said Acorn Biolabs co-founder Drew Taylor, is to store a person’s healthy cells and have them ready to produce whatever kind of tissue their owner may need later in life.

So far, Taylor’s team has regenerated cells for aesthetic purposes including hair growth and wrinkle removal, and athletic purposes such as accelerating bone recovery. He said their eventual goal is to use banked cells to create any tissue on demand – say, new pancreas cells for someone with diabetes – though that could still be a decade or more of research away. This has not stopped clients as young as 20 and as old as 80 to bank their cells in Acorn’s cryogenic chambers.

“We are on the precipice of leveraging our own cells to deliver us health,” said Taylor, who has been fascinated by medicine since watching his father, Ron, play professional baseball and then become team physician for the Toronto Blue Jays. “Regenerative medicine is the future of living healthily for longer.”

Finlay does not discount the possibility that a scientific breakthrough in regenerative medicine could eventually enhance our lifespans and revolutionize how we think about age.

“It’s thought that under absolutely pristine conditions, like a perfect diet, low stress, an active lifestyle and great genetics, people can live for up to 120 years,” he said. “That’s already pretty good, and I don’t think we have a magic bullet. But what if one day, we did. … That would be priceless.”

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