Literature: Cheating Death

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HOLY GRAIL: Silicon Valley is hard at work to crack the code of aging.

Long the subject of sci-fi and fantasy novels, local technologists are dead set on unlocking the secret of everlasting life. Chip Walter's Immortality Inc.: Renegade Science, Silicon Valley Billions, and the Quest to Live Forever is a deep dive into the very real efforts of Sand Hill Road-funded scientists to break the genetic code of aging and to develop a therapy much like the one offered up in so many works of speculative fiction.

If Walter's book is right, humanity may soon strike a profound blow against an adversary that so far still has a perfect record. The same people who disrupted media, commerce, transportation, entertainment, relationships and countless other sectors are now poised to disrupt the big sleep. As Walter himself writes at the end of his book (spoiler alert): "Science is going to cheat death."

At the end of the month, at the Schultz Cultural Hall in Palo Alto, Walter will be among a gathering of scientific minds assembled to grapple with the question of whether science can "cure" aging. The public event will also include Aubrey de Grey, the famously bearded gerontologist who has become a celebrity in the field of longevity; Robert Hariri, co-founder of Human Longevity Inc., a company that figures prominently in Walter's book; and Cynthia Kenyon, vice president at Calico, a biotech research firm backed by Google.

Like a battlefield wide shot in a Lord of the Rings movie, Walter's book tracks several intrepid parties as they converge on Mount Doom. It profiles a handful of the often flamboyant personalities that have personified the efforts to cure aging, including de Gray, futurist Ray Kurzweil and iconoclastic geneticist Craig Venter, who is credited with leading the effort to map the human genome. The book also stalks the companies that are developing the advances that might lead to a breakthrough, including Human Longevity, Inc., and Calico.

The wild card in the story may be biochemist Arthur Levinson—a member of Apple's board and the CEO of Calico, the Bay Area-based company largely funded by the deep pockets at Alphabet, the parent company of Google.

That Levinson and Google's financial muscle have thrown their weight behind the effort to figure out the mysteries of aging gave Walter the confidence to determine that the science was more than just rumor and speculation.

Through sophisticated gene-mapping and sequencing techniques, Calico embarked on the needle-in-a-haystack task of understanding how genes turned on and off the diseases associated with advanced age. Calico, for instance, made some important discoveries with a species of mole rat that has proven resistant to the ravages of aging, and in isolating chemical signals between sperm and egg that rejuvenate cells, making it theoretically possible to develop drugs that could engineer the same process.

As a result, Walter says, "I stepped back and looked around and thought, are they really going to pull it off? Are they crazy? Or can they actually do this? And I feel that they will, based on what we're learning."

Immortality, Inc.: The Quest to Live Forever
Jan 30, 7pm, $55
Oshman Family JCC, Palo Alto