The exclusive Australian clinic that promises eternal youth
Scientists and Silicon Valley types are experimenting to turn back their biological clock at a cellular level. As treatments become mainstream, we question whether they work and, ultimately, at what cost.
By FIONA MACDONALD from Vogue Australia
It's no longer enough just to look younger. Scientists and Silicon Valley types are now experimenting – often on themselves – to turn back their biological clock at a cellular level.
As celebrities, influencers and holidaymakers flocked to the New South Wales haven in Byron Bay to ride out the pandemic late last year, functional health coach Jason Gilbert found himself completely booked out. The 50-year-old, who has been described as a "human performance optimiser", was inundated with wellness seekers wanting to press pause on ageing.
Turning to science to look younger is nothing new. But the latest wave of anti-ageing therapies at the forefront of this movement go way past skin deep. Gilbert runs an exclusive clinic in Lennox Head, and also holds retreats in the hinterlands of Byron Bay that are designed to help people live younger for longer. Instead of massages and facials, these retreats can include infrared saunas, ice baths, fasting, oxygen therapy and breathwork. Back home, he and his clients also take resveratrol supplements and have IV infusions of futuristic molecules like NAD+ (nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide), and he is exploring stem cell therapies. "I'm 50 now, but I feel better than I did at 40 or at 30," Gilbert explains. "People want to look after themselves before they get sick. No one is waiting for old age anymore."
It sounds intense, if not a little painful. There are plenty of reasons to be wary of such therapies, but the reality is that these are just a handful of treatments you can now book at most medispas. And the appeal is clear.
Scientists are no longer just trying to make people look younger, but are actually trying to stop ageing at the cellular level to restore energy, improve vitality and enhance the collagen in their skin. Ultimately, though, these are all just side effects. The real goal is to have humans live healthily for longer – and perhaps even avoid getting old altogether.
"What we want to do is prevent ageing or slow it down," says Dr Nir Barzilai, scientific director of the American Federation for Aging Research and author of Age Later: Health Span, Life Span, and the New Science of Longevity. "Currently, people are treating one disease at a time and one organ at a time. It doesn't have to be like this. Ageing has a biology and this biology can be targeted."
Before we get carried away, let's be clear – while there are a lot of promising approaches that have emerged in the past 10 years, there are currently no accepted therapies that have been shown to extend human lifespan in a controlled, clinical trial. But that could soon change. Using the latest molecular technologies, Dr Barzilai and his team are just one of many groups worldwide currently looking for a 'cure' for ageing.
And it's not just the science world: leaders in Silicon Valley have spent the past 10 years developing anti-ageing technologies and, in some cases, experimenting on themselves – a process that's better known as biohacking or DIY biology.
Biohacking is a term you may have heard of. It can involve anything from tracking your brainwaves while you work and sleep – something Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey does daily with his $400 Oura ring – to saunas, ice baths and intermittent fasting.
On the more extreme side, there are people surgically inserting chips into their bodies to sync with technology. Former NASA employee Josiah Zayner even injected himself with gene-editing technology to try to enhance his muscles, while musician Grimes, partner of Elon Musk, shared last year that she has blue-light filters surgically implanted in her eyes to stop screens affecting her hormone levels. Google even has its own research and biotech venture focused on longevity, called Calico.
Daria Tsvenger, a Silicon Valley performance coach and angel investor now based in Los Angeles, has seen firsthand how quickly these approaches have trickled down into the mainstream.
"Every single client who's over 40 is serious about biohacking – they're doing everything to extend their lifespan," says Tsvenger, who works with high net-worth individuals. "All my clients fast for 24 hours almost every week and once they get over 60, they're all doing stem cell treatments to make themselves look younger."
There are now centres such as Next Health in LA, Bionad in London, and Kailo in Brisbane, which specialise in offering the public these cutting-edge approaches to anti-ageing, including blood tests to measure people's biological age and targeted plans involving vitamin infusions, vampire facials and infrared saunas.
The big question is, do any of these really work? To understand that, we need to learn a little more about how ageing happens.
The reality is we're already living longer than ever before. Thanks to modern medicine and good hygiene, the human lifespan in Australia has increased from around 48 in 1880 to 80 years for men and 84 for women in the year 2018. Still, most humans spend the last decades of their life in poor health – and that's a result of changes that start the day we're born.
Our cells divide trillions of times each day and every time they do, our biological clocks tick forward on their slow trudge towards old age. As cells get older, the protective telomere caps at the end of our DNA get shorter and they start to do whatever they can to get cleared out by the body – which means triggering inflammation and breaking down collagen. Unfortunately, our immune system gets worse at clearing them away as we get older, and the cells build up.
"This build-up explains many of the problems of older age, including conditions like arthritis, heart disease and even dementia," says Professor Elizabeth Ostler, a chemist at the Centre for Stress and Age-Related Disease at the University of Brighton in the UK.
Externally, we see this as our skin sagging, our energy dropping, and our risk of cardiovascular disease going up. People become less sensitive to insulin, which increases the risk of weight gain and diseases including type 2 diabetes.
If you find a way to stop cells getting older or simply get rid of them, in theory you'll be able to have a population that not only lives longer, but lives healthier, too.
As part of his work, Dr Barzilai studied people around the world who have lived past 100, and his results support this idea – centenarians don't get sick like everyone else and many of them don't develop any chronic conditions until their last years of life. By contrast, the US National Council on Aging says 80 per cent of older adults have at least one chronic disease, and 68 per cent have at least two. So how do we replicate their good health without their genes?
Currently, there are two leading approaches that have been shown to extend lifespan in animals: senolytics (drugs that target ageing cells) and caloric restriction, or fasting.
When it comes to senolytics, one of the standouts is the aforementioned NAD+, a coenzyme that helps the body break down molecules and make energy, and production of which naturally drops as we get older.
In 2013, researchers from Australia and the US showed that just one week of giving NAD+ to mice aged the equivalent of 60 human years old, effectively reversed their age, restoring them to the muscle tone and health of 20-year-olds. NAD+ has since been shown to reverse symptoms of Alzheimer's in ageing mice, and boosting its production has extended the lifespan of animals by 16 per cent.
There are now dozens of trials involving NAD+ and one of its precursor molecules, NMN (nicotinamide mononucleotide). But when it comes to longevity trials in humans, there's a problem. Mice typically live two to three years at most, so it's easy to see if a compound has an effect. But in humans you'd need a study to run for centuries with incredibly careful controls, which makes getting results tricky.
Another compound attracting a lot of hype is resveratrol, a concentrated form of a molecule found in red wine and chocolate. Resveratrol has been shown in mammal studies to reduce inflammation and mimic the effects of fasting, and may help to protect against cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer's symptoms.
Both NAD+ and resveratrol are classified as supplements, not drugs, which means they don't have to be subject to clinical trials to show they work and anyone can buy them. But there's also no solid evidence they do work, information on the correct dose to take, or even confirmation of whether they're safe in the long-term.
While it's too soon to know about potential side effects, taking NAD+ isn't necessarily pleasant for everyone. Make-up artist and influencer Isamaya Ffrench wrote about her experience taking NAD+ intravenously in Dazed Magazine in 2019 and described waves of dizziness and discomfort. "That familiar feeling of nausea that sweeps across you the moment the fluid hits, the effect immediate," she wrote.
There is a more natural way to stimulate NAD+ in the body: fasting. Caloric restriction has been known for more than 100 years to extend the lifespan of rodents and it also comes with a host of anti-inflammatory and digestive benefits, which is why regimes such as 16:8 (where you only eat during a block of eight hours a day), 5:2 (which involves heavily restricting calorie intake twice a week) and weekly 24-hour fasts, are very popular with both Silicon Valley moguls and celebrities.
While researchers are still finding out exactly how it works in humans, Professor Luigi Fontana, a longevity and caloric restriction expert from the University of Sydney and author of The Path to Longevity: How to Reach 100 With the Health and Stamina of a 40-year-old, explains that when we go for periods of time without eating, it makes our cells more sensitive to nutrients, particularly insulin.
This link has evolutionary roots. "Many mammals only have a few years to pass on their genes, so if there's a drought they need to make sure they can still reproduce the following year," explains Professor Fontana. "When food is scarce, the body diverts energy into protecting DNA to keep the parent alive so they can pass down their genes.
"The problem is people get obsessed and carried away when it comes to longevity," Fontana continues. "The data in animals looks exciting, but what happens in mice doesn't necessarily apply to humans."
Promisingly, one drug already on the market for type 2 diabetes is showing impressive anti-ageing effects: metformin. It's been used for more than 20 years, and some people who take it have seen delayed onset of some cancers, heart disease and other age-related diseases. In mice, rats and worms, metformin has been shown to extend lifespan. Studies this year have even revealed it prevents hospitalisation in many older patients with COVID-19.
Dr Barzilai, who is in his 60s, admits he's already taking metformin for its protective effects. His team is now running a clinical trial testing metformin against a placebo in 3,000 older patients across six years. It will be one of the first anti-ageing clinical trials in humans.
At the end of the day though, is living longer really the ultimate goal for most people?
For Gilbert, and many of his clients, it's more about being able to make the most of the time he does have. "It's about living energetically as long as I can," he says. "Let's imagine this is not going to extend my lifespan, at least I'll be surfing when I'm 90."
Just before COVID-19 hit, Gilbert was set to fly to Panama's Stem Cell Institute to have donated umbilical cord stem cells injected into him – a therapy he learned about in a Joe Rogan interview with Mel Gibson. Both Gibson and his father have been treated at the Stem Cell Institute. Gibson says his father was on his deathbed at 92, but after treatment was in good health. He died in May 2020 at the age of 101.
Stem cells have infinite potential to become any other cell type in the body, which means they can help the body heal and regenerate. Many studies have shown their potential, but they also come with a raft of safety and ethical issues, which is why many stem cell institutes are housed outside the UK, US and Australia, countries that share strict restrictions.
"What you have to always consider is where the cells come from and what you expect them to do," says Professor Megan Munsie, an ethics researcher from the University of Melbourne. "When the stem cells are donated you have to think about who donated them, if it was done under coercion and what those cells could be carrying."
Right now, the only approved stem cell treatment by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) is the use of umbilical or bone marrow stem cells as a treatment for blood disorders such as leukaemia. But it is possible to access therapies that use your own stem cells without TGA approval. For example, it's becoming increasingly popular for surgeons to take fat from a patient's abdomen, extract their stem cells, and then inject them back into their face.
"Over 45, fillers stop working as well to restore volume," says Dr Robert Gilmour from Restoration Medicine in Sydney's Paddington. "But these fat cells add volume and also help rejuvenate the skin from the inside out." Dr Gilmour has seen an increase in requests for these types of anti-ageing therapies. "It's a different kind of clientele – these are professional women over 50 who want to stay relevant. We're all working and living longer now, and they want to keep up without looking as though they've had work done."
Still, in the wrong hands, even these therapies have the potential to go wrong. Professor Munsie shares a story reported in Scientific American back in 2012, of a woman who went to a doctor with pain and a clicking behind her eye, only to find out there were tiny shards of bone all around the socket. It turns out she'd had her own stem cells injected into the area as part of a facial, but the doctor had also used dermal fillers, which triggered those stem cells to turn into bone.
"If you don't think these things through or have experts leading your care, you can have unexpected outcomes that can be quite catastrophic," she explains.
Not to mention expensive. Most of these therapies come with a hefty price tag. NAD+ infusions can cost close to $400 each time, and are recommended every six weeks. Resveratrol supplements can be bought online relatively cheaply, but when you're looking at stem cell therapies, prices range from thousands to tens of thousands, depending on where you're going and what you're having done. There are concerns that, in the future, it will be only the rich who can afford to live healthier and longer.
Indeed, in Silicon Valley, Tsvenger says money plays a big part – it's only because these clients have everything else taken care of in their proverbial Maslow's hierarchy of needs that they can invest in as-yet untested therapies.
However, Professor Fontana isn't too concerned. He feels that if any anti-ageing therapies pass clinical trials, at some point governments will have no choice but to subsidise them. The alternative is spending millions more each year dealing with an ageing, unhealthy population. Importantly, he adds, many of the ways we already know of to live longer are free, something many people forget about when they get caught up in the latest molecules or procedures.
"Exercise stimulates NAD+," says Fontana. "Eating well, fasting, not eating junk food, reducing stress levels, staying active … we already have a range of tools to live healthier for longer." What we're really looking for when we turn to IV drips and supplements is a magic pill that will do the hard work for us, he suggests. And we're not there … yet.
Patience is frustrating advice for those of us already in the throes of ageing, but only time and research will tell whether these biohacks will make any real difference when it comes to the fight against our lifespans.
This story originally appeared in Vogue Australia's February issue, on sale now.