Near-billionaire Bryan Johnson apparently does not like getting old and he’s trying to do something transformative about it. He and his team are experimenting in a big way. As a 55-year-old myself, I can’t blame him for wanting to fight aging in general. However, his anti-aging project includes some extreme stuff. Will some in the general public follow suit?
The effort has generated major media coverage, some of it not entirely balanced.
For example, Ashlee Vance over at Bloomberg seems to have a complicated view of Johnson and his extreme quest for everlasting youth. Vance has been following Johnson’s efforts for a while now and has a new article out that is all over the place.
The Bloomberg piece, entitled “How to Be 18 Years Old Again for Only $2 Million a Year” seems to lurch from almost fanboy-like admiration to cautionary statements about some of the things Johnson is doing. The title also wrongly implies Johnson has been able to become like an 18-year-old again.
What’s the real deal here? Let’s dig into this.
Bryan Johnson reboot
Some of what Johnson, who made hundreds of millions of dollars on Braintree Venmo, reportedly is doing to fight aging isn’t that surprising. Diet, exercise, supplements. Still, other things Vance mentions, if accurate, bring things into such extreme territory that if others follow suit it could amplify the risks.
The subtitle of Vance’s article gets us to the heart of the matter, “Middle-aged tech centimillionaire Bryan Johnson and his team of 30 doctors say they have a plan to reboot his body.”
It’s almost as though they’re trying to reprogram Johnson into a giant iPS cell or something. I’ve discussed in vivo reprogramming before and it’s a cool type of research. This is where scientists have expressed pluripotency factors inside mice and reported some signs of reversed aging. For example, a recent paper by David Sinclair is just the latest in a decades-long series of in vivo reprogramming papers.
Reprogramming your body to be younger is a fun idea, but it’s not ready for prime time. There are going to be big risks. Are Johnson’s doctors giving him solid advice based on strong data? I have my doubts.
Who is Bryan Johnson lead doc Oliver Zolman?
Who is guiding Johnson in this anti-aging experiment? I think he’s likely doing some of his own research on the web.
In terms of physicians, it seems to be a British doc named Oliver Zolman at the helm. Vance says he’s a 29-year-old “regenerative medicine” physician. I’m not clear on what that means these days. I’ve called for regenerative medicine fellowships for doctors for a decade now, but there still aren’t many programs out there.
“Zolman, who got his medical degree from King’s College London, is more measured. He stresses that his work with Johnson is just beginning and that they have hundreds of procedures left to explore, including a range of experimental gene therapies. “We have not achieved any remarkable results,” he says. “In Bryan, we have achieved small, reasonable results, and it’s to be expected.”
This statement attributed to Zolman seems reasonable. It’s cautious.
The riskiest stuff
What about the actual actions, past and planned, though? In my view they are not so reasonable.
The mass medical testing on Johnson seems unnecessary. Some of the other stuff is very unwise like snorting stem cells and possibly DIY gene therapy in the future.
Snorting stem cells is not wise. Even research in animals on this approach isn’t clear. Intranasal stem cell delivery risks the cells or other material getting right into the brain. You want someone else’s stem cells in your brain? Bad idea. Your own cells? That’s still risky, especially depending on the cell type and how it was processed. Maybe Zolman wasn’t involved in that? I directly asked Johnson about the stem cell snorting on Twitter but got no reply.
Also, I’m curious to see if Johnson goes through with the possible gene therapy and if Zolman has a role in that. Injecting someone (or yourself) with unproven and unapproved gene therapy, such as via viral delivery, would be very dangerous. There are many possible risks like leukemia, other cancers, or immune system problems.
Some of you probably remember Liz Parrish reportedly going the DIY gene therapy route. It’s not clear how that turned out. Her firm, BioViva, is raising money to continue anti-aging efforts. I’m skeptical but she has had some strong collaborators including George Church.
Vance also quotes Church on Johnson:
“The whole longevity field is transitioning into a much more rigorous, clinical place,” says George Church, the famed Harvard University geneticist, who has stakes in a number of biotech companies. “I think what Bryan is doing is very well-intentioned and probably very important.” He adds: “I also don’t think a lot of this stuff will be all that expensive when the dust settles.”
We’ll see about the costs if this ever gets to a commercial phase.
Another article on Johnson’s anti-aging quest over at Vice asked some Altos Labs researchers about it. They seemed appropriately cautious. Altos Labs is in part focused on rejuvenation as well but through rigorous research.
Commercialization and rejuvenation clinics?
What is Zolman doing more generally? If you navigate to his website, there are a few reasonable things there listed as goals. Things that logically might help health. However, a lot of the stuff did not make sense to me as a stem cell biologist. My big question is about possible commercialization.
Does Zolman want to ultimately open a chain of rejuvenation clinics? His website implies that is a goal. It reminds of the Fountain Life clinics here in the U.S. that I recently fact-checked, including what I’d call overuse of medical testing.
I asked him about this on Twitter. See the above screenshot that was captured before he deleted all his messages. He suggested that he wasn’t going to follow the clinic path, at least not any time soon. The clinic related content is still up as of now on his site. Zolman’s Twitter account seems to have been deleted now.
I wasn’t familiar with Zolman’s work as a regenerative medicine scientist or physician. The fact that I could only find one publication for Oliver Zolman or “Zolman ON” on a PubMed search and it was just a review article wasn’t reassuring to me about a solid foundation of research in this area. Does Zolman have more papers and I just missed them? Zolman’s LinkedIn page indicates he’s mainly been involved in a consulting firm lately. Again, I can’t really tell if he’s done regenerative medicine laboratory or clinical research before.
I wonder: how did Johnson connect with Zolman? A promotional partnership?
Looking ahead, hopefully we won’t see more everyday people rolling the dice on DIY gene therapy, snorting stem cells, and doing other risky things in the meantime because of this Johnson team effort.
I wish Johnson himself the best even if I think he’s on an extreme path. It feels to me like this is in part a fun kind of sport for him. In my view, the sad irony here is that his wild anti-aging push could end up leading to him living a shorter time.