Tue, Jan 05, 2016 - Page 12 News List

Making longevity sexy

Living longer doesn’t have to be a slow slide into senescence and withered decrepitude, according to Alexander Zhavoronkov

By Jules Quartly  /  Contributing reporter

Alexander Zhavoronkov, the co-founder and CEO of Insilico Medicine, believes that with a healthy lifestyle, the right medicines and apps to track our health, we’ll all be living way past 100 years.

Photo: Jules Quartly

Koschei the Deathless is a fairytale about a preternaturally old and ugly man with an eye for other people’s wives. He cannot be killed, because his soul lies within a needle, inside an egg, in a duck and a hare, hidden in an iron chest and buried under an oak tree on the mythical isle of Buyan.

For Alexander Zhavoronkov, the co-founder and CEO of Insilico Medicine, one of the world’s top companies specializing in the informatics of aging, the tale was part of his Latvian childhood in what was then the Soviet city of Riga. It was just one of many myths that had immortality as its theme, a particularly Slavic obsession, it would seem.

But no more so than for the young and idealistic Zhavoronkov, who set out in life with the idea of becoming a medical doctor, but then had a moment of illumination that set him off on a different path.

“I realized that doctors don’t really save lives, they just prolong death, it was an awakening,” he says in a Skype interview from California.

“Aging research is the most altruistic thing. If you cure cancer, people will still die. Alzheimer’s the same. If a doctor ‘saves’ 1,000 people, they are still going to die. If I can add one year to everyone’s life, that is a lot more quality-adjusted life years.”

After migrating to Canada as a child, he earned a bucket load of degrees and is now one of those big brains not averse to making money. He moves seamlessly between continents, keeping an eye on the company’s researchers in the US, Poland, China and Ukraine. He’s also an adjunct professor at the Moscow Institute of Physics, director of the Biogerontology Research Foundation in the UK and founder of the International Aging Research Portfolio.

The author of reams of academic papers, he has also managed to find time to write books such as The Ageless Generation: How Advances in Biomedicine Will Transform the Global Economy, which posits that recent biomedical advances should allow people to live well over a hundred years — and stay productive.

He “adores” Taiwan, saying it has the beauty of China, the advantage of North American manners and a unique culture. He used to visit regularly at the turn of the millennium in search of the graphic cards used for deep learning, which models abstract ideas based on big data. He even found love — at Carnegies — and says, “Well, I guess you know how that ended up.” I’m pretty sure he’s smiling at the memory.

Zhavoronkov also loves Taiwan from a professional viewpoint.

“It has one of the lowest birth rates and one of the most rapidly aging populations in the world,” he says.

As a result, however, he believes that if the country doesn’t extend the healthy, productive life of its elderly, then this will likely be compensated for by immigration from China.

“China doesn’t need weapons to take Taiwan, it just needs to wait,” he adds.

It’s an interesting viewpoint, even more so because it’s not part of the Blue-Green (Chinese Nationalist Party-Democratic Progressive Party) carousel of politics.

However, Zhavoronkov thinks that Taiwan could play an important role in aging research since it has a lot of top-notch scientists.

He says it’s “really not a heavy investment — you just need lots of smart people with computers and it could play a big role in global development.”

While an aging population is normally associated with a declining economy, Zhavoronkov believes that if you age healthily, then a great deal is saved in terms of healthcare costs. Jobs such as blogging, writing books and painting can be done from home, and therefore, “productive aging offers lifelong learning and unprecedented economic growth.”

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