Should aging be
classified as a disease?
In the future, aging will be viewed as a disease that can be cured (or at least slowed down) with the right type of medication. This is a theory that is increasingly emerging in longevity circles. Victor Björk became obsessed with the idea a long time ago and is now helping innovative companies to grow.
WHEN I FIRST contacted Victor Björk in 2019, it was because I realized that the view of aging had changed. In the fields of transhumanism and biohacking, the new truth was increasingly pronounced: aging is a disease, so why is not more research being done on how we can cure it?
Victor Björk studied molecular biology in Uppsala and became increasingly interested in how senescent cells play a role in the aging process. He traveled to Italy to meet the world’s oldest living person, received some attention, and became involved in more and more forums for research on aging and life extension – popularized in the term ”longevity”. It is safe to say that he became obsessed with this topic.
Lifestyle choices are not enough
Personally, I had not fully understood the breadth of the scientific and medical research in this field. I was still of the opinion that a long life was only defined by lifestyle factors such as diet, exercise, finding meaning, and a social context, which we learned through the studies of the so-called ”blue zones” that are found in certain parts of the world. Today, we have deeper insights into, for example, biohacking and periodic fasting.
When we met in the podcast studio in 2019, Victor Björk admitted that these were important parameters. But he went a step further.
– Lifestyle is absolutely important if you want to live to 90, or even 120. But somewhere there seems to be a limit. If you want to live even longer, medication is needed.
Shortly afterward, he left Uppsala to pursue his dream in San Francisco and New York, where most of the research and development around solutions to aging are being done – eagerly fueled by the IT billionaires’ capital (and perhaps their growing death anxiety). He worked with companies such as Bio-Age and Ichor Therapeutics to develop drugs for slowing down aging.
– I have worked in many different parts of the field. Among other things, I have looked at senescent cells and lipofuscin, a substance that accumulates in cells that do not divide. You could say it’s like a biochemical goo that takes over cell function. Lipofuscin is common in old people, among other things linked to the yellow spot in the eye. One of my previous employers in San Francisco recently raised 90 million USD for their drugs to go to clinical trials. They work with hypoxia-induced factors that trigger the body to repair itself.
Two popular anti-aging drugs
There are mainly two substances on the market, which according to early studies on mice are considered to be able to slow down aging. Metformin is perhaps the most well-known.
– Metformin is a medicine to treat type 2 diabetes, but it has been shown that those who eat it also have a lower incidence of cancer and cardiovascular disease. The advantage is that it has been given to diabetic patients for many years, so it is possible to study. I believe that we should carry out that type of study in Sweden, and I have written about this to the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare. I take Metformin myself since anyone can buy it in Southern Europe. In Sweden, you have to persuade your doctor to get it prescribed.
The other substance that often appears in longevity discussions is Rapamycin, an immunosuppressant given to patients with organ transplants, for example.
– There are no data on the effect of rapamycin on aging in humans, but there are a lot of studies on mice that show that it has a clear life-prolonging effect.
A major hurdle, says Victor Björk, is that credible studies cannot be done on humans as long as aging in itself is not classified as a disease.
– Researchers in this field must take detours and claim that they are studying effects on osteoarthritis or similar. I would say that many scientists now have started to understand this field – but not very many legislators.
Funding on the way
Today, Victor Björk lives in Brussels, close to both decision-makers within the EU and HEALES – The Healthy Life Extension Society – which organizes one of the largest longevity conferences in the world.
Victor sits on HEALES’ board and works for a venture capital company, where his task is to find new exciting longevity startups that may need capital injections.
– The number of startups is steadily increasing, and this is now an industry that exists as an actual field. 20 years ago, there were no techniques to cure aging but now there is data to start from. A low-hanging fruit is senescent cells, which lie in the body as debris and do not participate in the functions of the body. If you eliminate them from mice, you can increase their lifespan. It is one of the hottest parts of rejuvenation technology right now. We will see major breakthroughs.
“Lifestyle choices are not enough..."
What could Sweden do to take a position in this field?
– Many labs have interesting technologies, but they need to be more visible. I believe in creating a research community specifically around aging. That way we could get collaborations and technology transfers between clinics and labs, as well as more startups and spin-offs from the universities.
You are connected with some of the world’s key players in the field. What do you see as the next step in longevity?
– On the horizon is technology to be able to reprogram cells so that they become younger. Probably by injecting for better functionality.
What type of companies are you going to invest in?
– I am looking for small, underestimated companies at an early stage, with a technology that makes them unique. The problem is that when an area becomes popular, you get many competitors with similar purposes. This causes some fields to be neglected. There are also many good companies with applications for aging research, but which do not work with aging as a single focus.