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Personal Story: Entering the Field of Rejuvenation Biotechnology

Victor BjoerkVictor Bjoerk

I grew up in northern Sweden, and from early childhood, I always had a general interest in all kinds of science and technology. I often thought about the future and what sort of society we would evolve into.

As far as my memory goes, back even when I was only 3-4 years old, I enjoyed reading about new science and technology that was being developed. For example, as a kindergartener, I had requested for a while that my parents teach me about a new disease every day. My parents were very hands-off; they neither discouraged or encouraged me to pursue any particular interests. I should mention that the rest of my family are economists, and there was no obvious push for me to study science or do something about aging.

By then, I already had episodes of existential angst, realizing that life was very short and that not much of reality would be understood. What surprised me was that many kids around me did not appear to feel the same but appeared quite content without questioning a lot of norms, which frustrated me. To me, it seemed obvious that letting people die was wrong, and I saw through the double standard of trying everything to prevent, for example, traffic deaths while accepting death from aging as a part of life.

I’ve always had the experience of time passing quickly; also, most of our time is spent in transport between different events and fulfilling our basic physiological needs as well as perpetuating a repetitive cycle by creating new generations; what could we do if we had a lot of extra time?

During my late teens, I worked in elderly care and I realized what the future looks like for everyone within a few decades. They endure a degrading experience of not being able to live independently while being in constant pain, and their enormous suffering is somehow tolerated by society because it’s seen as “natural”. It was by then that I started to read up on aging and understand that the elderly were sick because of processes that could be reversed and that they were essentially young people in need of repair.

I vowed to myself to not end up in their state in a few decades from now, in the accelerating era of biotechnology, that’s not an impossible dream. I realized back then that a repair-based approach such as SENS would be the ultimate direction of development; the logic was crystal clear.

I joined the European scientific think tank Heales back in 2011 while it was in its early stages and I was living in Brussels. Since then, there have been four major biennial conferences on aging: the Eurosymposium on Healthy Aging conference series (EHA). I still serve as the director of Heales, and there is a new EHA conference coming up in October this year. Keep EHA2020 on your agenda!

As for formal studies, I started out in medicine while living in Brussels in Belgium. However, I realized after a while that this was not the path to go and moved back to Sweden to study molecular biology.

There are many reasons why I would definitely recommend a biology degree over medicine; for example, it is shorter and less regulated, which allows you to more easily work internationally.

Medicine is very hierarchical and structured. People go into it with all of the best intentions to alleviate human suffering, but you just apply existing products rather than develop new ones. Doctors may earn a good wage and get respected by society, but, as they do not develop products that make a difference, they are ultimately powerless. Medicine is certainly super interesting to study, but the reality afterwards is not optimal; as you specialize into a narrow area and do the same chores repeatedly, you end up a bit like a highly qualified soda machine.

Many doctors end up unhappy discovering that their initial perception does not match reality, as they are not really curing people, but they do not have an easy way out.

You may also argue the same about people who pursue an academic path in life sciences and get trapped in a publish-or-perish cycle. They end up doing what gives them grants, not what makes the most impact on a long-term basis. If your love is science itself, then go for the academic path, but if you want to cure aging, the private sector is the way to maximize your individual impact.

Ultimately, if a window of opportunity arises, entrepreneurship is the way to have an impact on the field; it lets you work with multiple disciplines and achieve as much freedom as possible. Rejuvenation biology is, of course, a very new field, and biotechnology companies are not like starting a restaurant, since they require significant capital and human resources.

While, superficially, biology may appear easier than, for example, rocket science, it isn’t, it may appear convenient at first when entering university studies in it, however it takes a lot of time and frustration to accurately replicate data.

If you master the math, you can send a rocket to the moon; it’s predictable and accurate. However, when you think you’ve mastered biology, you haven’t really mastered it, and most scientific papers in life sciences are not even possible to replicate. This, of course, is explained through how experiments are performed along with the messy reality of nature; after all, humans are nothing more than parts of a 4-billion-year-old genetic code that is being haphazardly propagated around the planet, and we did not design ourselves.

That being said, I don’t think curing aging is intrinsically harder than other cutting-edge biology problems. The basic techniques exist, so the main problems are a severe lack of funding and a goal-oriented community. While the growth of new companies in the area is wonderful, there’s also a lot of hype. There are things that may sound promising or that we think could work based on biochemical theories but that do not pan out. While I’m in favor of any research or supplement that may give the slightest health benefit to the elderly, it is important to be highly skeptical and analytical. I am not easily impressed and like to get to the bottom of things.

People ask what to study for a career in rejuvenation biotechnology. I took normal Bachelor’s and Master’s courses in molecular and cell biology, where I’ve been fortunate to do a standard range of molecular biology techniques with everything from CRISPR to working with bacteria and the roundworm C. elegans.

Unfortunately, as of 2020, there are no really good university programs focused on systemically understanding, and applying biotechnology to cure, aging. Even if there were, they would just provide a small snapshot into an evolving area. Therefore, you should have a good basic knowledge of biology and aim for a broad education, including basic cell biology, physiology, cancer biology, genetics, proteomics, pharmacology, infection biology, developmental biology, and bioinformatics. Ideally, you should also learn about the biotech industry and the drug development process. Don’t take home just the specific knowledge; understand the methodology of science and awareness of how publications are often flawed. Many things we think we know, we don’t really know. I also strongly recommend going to labs visiting and getting to know researchers.

Try taking a top-down approach: think of aging as a puzzle. Visualize an old person: think of how bad that person’s quality of life is and how that person has been transformed into a biomolecular mess due to the fundamental biology that makes up a human going awry. Think about exactly what has happened to the substrate making up the individual on a molecular scale and upwards; how would you devise a thorough repair strategy? Start your scientific thinking there, and learn biology onwards. I don’t perceive people as empty buckets that need to be filled with X in order to start understanding Y – things can go into reverse as well.

Pick a university with a reasonably good ranking and where you can find a good quality of life. I personally did my studies at Uppsala University, which ranks at the top of Scandinavian universities when it comes to biotechnology.

If you need a scholarship, I would look at SENS Research Foundation and private sector initiatives, but they are often assigned to particular projects rather than just generally supporting people early in their careers. It is a different story, of course, if you are pursuing a PhD; most scholarships in aging research are given at that level. I haven’t personally benefited from any scholarships; I financed my studies through a combination of loans and part-time jobs in different areas.

If you are financing your education through a student loan, you can’t expect to pay it back very quickly unless you work in the private sector; of course, this depends on the country. The reasonably good wages in academia are generally found among professors over age 40. I am confident that aging researchers are going to be extremely in demand in the future, and whatever the temporary market swings are, I feel that this is the field to be in, even for people who are cynical enough to not factor in the moral/ethical imperative. I hope no one goes into aging research for a quick buck, because they are going to be disappointed; however, with patience and determination, it’s going to be possible to craft a meaningful life and end up wealthy.

Professors tend to be very specialized and may not know a lot about aging research, but you may find friendly professors who are willing to coach you and are experts in relevant areas. Building good relations is important, and I’ve been fortunate to have had some nice professors. A lot of professors are interested in the science itself, and that’s why they became professors in the first place; they are unlikely to spend their time understanding the transdisciplinary biological fields that they would need in order to systematically cure aging.

The truth is that you have to constantly self-learn, and you can start by reading a new relevant scientific paper every day and being around the right people. I recommend looking at a general roadmap to understand aging in broad terms, such as the hallmarks of aging. After that, get into the habit of reading papers relevant to the area. There are many good and inexpensive handbooks on aging that can be ordered online on Amazon. Personally, I read popular science with healthy skepticism as well as original publications (where one also needs healthy skepticism!) While Facebook shouldn’t occupy too much of your time, there are interesting groups where people constantly keep each other updated with new scientific papers, so that’s recommended.

This can occupy your study time, since the day has only 24 hours. I honestly admit being someone who always prioritizes my own interests, so aging biology always comes first, whether it overlaps with the must-dos or not. I probably studied less than most of my classmates in order to pass my courses, so I had lots of spare time when it came to my own interests, and I put quite a bit into activism. Burnout often happens because one is generally unsatisfied with life, and it is, of course, important to pursue many other hobbies outside of aging, since I find that it often adds rather than distracts. This also depends on whether you enjoy something; I perceive going to international scientific conferences as a lot of fun, and there is subsequently no cognitive load from attending them. Going to conferences like Undoing Aging is, for me, psychologically equivalent to going on vacation at a tropical island, so I encounter interesting people while simultaneously decreasing my stress levels: win-win!

I can, with all certainty, say that 95% of what I know, I’ve taught myself due to my own interest. I did not rely on university as a primary source of knowledge, and I will never judge people by their degree but instead on what they know; however, a major reason for studying at university would be to get practical experience from lab work, although you can learn the theory at home.

Understand that the main purpose of having a degree is to get taken seriously by society and prove to an employer that you have the resilience to sacrifice the time to obtain it; it’s a bit like a peacock’s tail. This is also the thinking of entrepreneurs, including Bill Gates and Elon Musk, who have changed the world, they self-learn a broad spectrum of fields, and this common theme applies to the aging area as well.

I encounter a lot of people who want aging cured but do not see how to build any path forward. They might take a single hypothesis too seriously but have the related experiments fail. They may begin studying biology but fail to see what to concretely do, later ending up with a job in life sciences in which they don’t do anything that they want. A career in academia furthermore depends on getting grants, which are given by an establishment that generally still does not see aging itself as a target and where conformity is the rule. People want to support themselves with a stable source of income and take things as they come after university, even if they feel deep inside that their jobs are not about bringing a cure to aging. Ultimately, when it comes to individual impact, the ideal route is bioentrepreneurship, a good second would be channeling resources towards sound science through working in venture capital.

Challenges I’ve always experienced at university and throughout the whole schooling system have included a lack of stimulation and an inability to discuss interesting topics that were not strictly part of the curriculum; no wonder there’s a lack of transdisciplinary thinking. It would be great to allow more flexibility into the education system, which would enable people to obtain a skillset early on for aging research, and this is, of course, something that is dependent on the country. A more flexible university system would rapidly lead to much better outcomes for people.

Throughout history, people have always encountered naysayers, and despite the evidence that nothing is improved by this behavioral pattern, it has been conserved between generations. Even Einstein had teachers who did not believe that he could accomplish a lot, so even the person who invented the whole theory of relativity did clearly not impress the people around him at all stages in life. It’s important to be stone-deaf to people who discourage you on grounds that are ad hominem and not science-based, especially when we have a life-and-death matter such as aging, where a maximum number of helping hands are required to speed things up as much as possible over the next few decades. It is also not necessarily the overdog that produces the product that ends up working, so one should never dismiss anyone.

As for interpersonal relationships in your daily life, it depends on the individual lab just like in all areas of life; for every toxic culture you encounter, you also often find many more supportive environments. You can deliver the same performance and one lab will consider you a paragon and the other a nuisance, so choose wisely where you go. There will always be a balance in the social dynamic between people who want aging solved and those who are only in academia to have a source of income or a scientific curiosity that is not goal-oriented. A very serious issue, though, is fear of failure; it’s through failure that one learns what works. If your lab punishes failure, then run – the risk is that such a lab, apart from being disastrous for well-being, also ends up producing manipulated data. Maybe if you’re an painter/musician or clothesmaker, you can create whatever you like because the value is subjective to the customer; in aging research, only objective natural science exists, and if the products do not deliver, you’ll die.

There are admirable people, such as Matthew Scholz of Oisin Biotechnologies, who are seriously impactful in the area despite having no formal university biology background. Therefore, I want to offer encouragement to everyone who feels hesitant to force themselves into aging research; even if you have the “wrong” background, your contributions matter a lot to the biggest problem that humanity is currently facing.

In addition to biology, it is a good idea to know some computer science since it’s becoming quite interconnected with life sciences these days, and you should also have some business knowledge. However, I don’t recommend staying longer at university than strictly necessary to get extra degrees, since it means accumulating debt while not actively contributing.

I can not imagine working in another field than aging research, since I could not live with myself if I felt like I could have rescued old people but decided to not do it and trivialized my life away, supporting myself through something else. To keep myself motivated during my university years, I regularly continued to work in nursing homes; monitoring vital signs for people at their deathbeds while they slipped away became something of a speciality.

I would hope that people are driven by long-term forward thinking and not into this field for a quick fix; to me, however, it is apparent that the people who really deliver useful products will become billionaires within 20-30 years from now. Aging research is certainly eventually going to create the next Amazons and Microsofts; the question is exactly when this will happen.

The Bay Area around San Francisco is obviously the epicenter for big technology in the world, with Google, Facebook as well as many life sciences companies having their headquarters in the area and a lot of venture capital flowing around. Naturally, this is the place to start out a career in this field, whatever geographic place you operate in later.

After university studies, this is what drove me to seek out BioAge, which is a Californian aging company that works on human data to target age-related disease. People here are also very interested in aging as a whole, not as a scientific curiosity but with the intention to really have it cured within a reasonable timeframe.

In summary, I’m very happy to be in the Bay Area now. BioAge is a fantastic company with goal-oriented people who share the mission. You would expect the whole world to be attacking the aging problem, but as of now, it’s still a relatively limited community where people know each other. I’m also surprised that I am in this community since I thought that 10 years ago, somebody else would have already made a lot of progress on it, so I saw no reason to care about it personally.

While I, of course, miss some friends and family, I feel it is overwhelmingly the right decision; I’m happy to relocate anywhere where I can help out the life extension community, and it’s not like BioAge is located in Antarctica.

Speaking of my own future, I am not going to leave this field until aging is completely defeated. I don’t really view it as a sacrifice, I reason that if you die without having defeated aging, your life had no purpose to begin with, so you did not lose anything. That being said, I have a vast range of other interests, but the primary goal is to be alive to have the time to do things. Here, LEAF plays a huge role in being able to reach out and inform people and in changing the public perception on aging.

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About the author
Victor Bjoerk

Victor Bjoerk

Victor is currently studying his Masters degree in Biology and is an active member of the scientific community.
  1. semptag
    February 26, 2020

    great article victor. your story nearly echos mine. I came into wanting to defeat aging after watching my grandma die from athelosclerosis. she was hospitalised for weeks. it was horrible. lets work together to end this suffering and to build a healthier and longer future for us and our loved ones

  2. aubreytennant
    February 26, 2020

    Awesome article, especially your comment regarding all of our predisposition toward formal education.

    Understand that the main purpose of having a degree is to get taken seriously by society and prove to an employer that you have the resilience to sacrifice the time to obtain it; it’s a bit like a peacock’s tail. This is also the thinking of entrepreneurs, including Bill Gates and Elon Musk, who have changed the world, they self-learn a broad spectrum of fields, and this common theme applies to the aging area as well.
    Very inspirational call to action!

  3. yong
    February 26, 2020

    Great to have passionate advocates like you around, Victor! We will not go quietly into the good night for sure.

  4. tzebo
    February 27, 2020

    WOW! Thanks for writing this awesome history and analysis. VERY inspiring! It’s motivating me to write my own “eulogy” as a way to discover what’s next for me. Thanks again!!!

  5. walticular1
    March 6, 2020

    Go, Victor, go! Your attitude, wisdom and diligence are brilliant. I will pass the essay on to some young folks I know who are seeking an inspiring path.

  6. Bruno Taschke
    March 8, 2020

    Thanks a lot for this article! It is very interesting and inspiring to see how you chose your path.

  7. tazul3265
    July 10, 2020

    nice article

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