Tina Woods is a UK-based founder of several social enterprises in healthcare and longevity and the author of the book Live Longer with AI, which we recently reviewed. In this interview, Tina shares valuable insights on how social entrepreneurship works in our field, what governments can and must do to promote healthy aging, and what kind of people dedicate their lives to longevity research.
How did you get into the longevity field? What do you find fascinating about it?
I have been fascinated by genetics and the biology of life ever since I was young. I remember pouring over second-hand medical textbooks to understand everything from embryology to obstetrics- any topic connected to birth. I ended up studying genetics at Cornell University just before the Human Genome Project was kicking off. I ended up working in the pharma industry for many years before moving into health technology and innovation. It was only when I started working with UK Research and Innovation on the Healthy Ageing Industrial Strategy and connected up my other interests in data and artificial intelligence that I really started to get serious about understanding the science of longevity and the ecosystem of people involved. I was intrigued by the scientists and entrepreneurs working in this space and always like meeting people who challenge the status quo. I first heard about Aubrey de Grey in 2016. I remember seeing Bioviva CEO Liz Parrish’s talk in 2017 about the results she was getting as ‘patient zero’ taking her own gene therapy, and then reading other research showing that the telomere lengthening that Liz talked about, for example, could also be achieved with less radical means (like doing yoga). That set me off to explore further.
What is your role as a social entrepreneur? You have founded several enterprises in the field. What do they do?
I am very entrepreneurial but motivated by missions, not money. I am driven by spotting opportunities for positive systemic change and making things happen in a creative process usually involving many people and organisations. There are so many vested interests in healthcare that paralyse progress and so many siloed institutions focusing too narrowly on the wrong problems. We need to work together in far more ambitious and collaborative ways to solve the big challenges in health – and we need to dismantle the perverse incentives that preserve the status quo and old thinking.
The first social enterprise I set up was Collider Science, to inspire young people in science and technology while equipping them with the creative skills to cope with uncertainty. The next one was Longevity International, which is focused on maximising access to the longevity dividend and that also manages the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Longevity. The last one is Business for Health, launched in November 2020. This is a business-led coalition of socially responsible employers, purchasers, investors and innovators supporting long-term sustainable innovation and investment in preventative health and care. Its aim is to enhance the health and economic resilience of the UK by devising practical ways to incentivise business contributions to health.
Let us talk about the political aspect. You are the architect of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Longevity in the UK. How does it work, is it a success, and can it serve as a blueprint for other countries?
All-party parliamentary groups (APPGs) provide a forum to bring together parliamentarians across political parties and interested stakeholders on issues of policy relating to a particular area. As of February 2020, there were 355 APPGs in the UK addressing topics ranging from acquired brain injury to zoos. Most are not particularly active, but the APPG for Longevity has been described as an ‘incubator for ideas and action’ since it first formed in March 2019 to develop a plan for achieving five extra years of healthy life expectancy while minimising health inequalities, or ‘HLE+5’ as shorthand, a stated government goal. In a process lasting less than a year, the APPG developed and published the Health of the Nation strategy in February 2020, which involved convening over a hundred experts across disciplines and about 50 corporate partners, SMEs and third sector organisations (including The Health Foundation, Kings Fund, Genomics England, UK Research & Innovation, and Centre for Ageing Better) to identify core ideas and curate the evidence base underpinning key recommendations.
The APPG is now calling for more concerted action to address the UK’s ‘unhealthy nation’ as published on 8 December in Lancet Healthy Longevity, which cites progress made throughout the pandemic on two of the nine core recommendations of the Health of the Nation strategy.
The first is the launch of Business for Health, and its first project in 2021 will be the development of a ‘Business Index’ to help identify positive ‘commercial determinants of health’ (and call out negative ones), share best practice, and facilitate research for companies to do their part in improving employee and population health. The approach will be cross-sectoral, and the working model will encourage smaller as well as larger businesses to be involved. It is complex, as it will need to be multi sector- it will probably emerge as a kitemark or accreditation rather than the Index as such- but will be guided by our Business for Health community to help us design and co-create it while learning and sharing and iterating as we go on how business can create health. Our ‘collaborative improvement forum’ will start to come together in early 2021 to begin the process. We expect that shorter-term gains will come from business as an employer, with longer-term gains expected from the investment community guided by ESG mandates to invest in socially responsible preventative health and care aligned to HLE+5 in a model akin to what exists in the climate change space.
The APPG has also set in train the Open Life Data Framework to work out how best to harness datasets across the life course for better health. We have formed a task group exploring how we can harness public and private data to increase healthy longevity via ethical data models underpinned by the best data infrastructure and standards. Two task groups have been run to date and these have also informed our responses to the UK’s National Data Strategy consultation submitted on 9 December. We are continuing our work to publish the framework later in 2021.
As part of our thinking, we believe there needs to be more focus on private sector data and ‘non-health’ data to leverage the potential of multimodal AI in understanding wider determinants of health and devising solutions for social impact at scale for wider societal benefit. This will drive social and business model innovation, unearth new models on how data can grow economies in a fairer, more equitable way and offer alternatives to US market-led approaches and Chinese state-driven ambitions to lead in AI.
We also want to leverage fascinating developments with ageing biomarkers, which could lead to the development of strategies to minimise the risk of the diseases of ageing, including chronic diseases like dementia. Aided by AI, scientists are working out which biomarkers will be most useful to track the ageing process but, most importantly, practically assess which interventions, whether those are lifestyle, microbiome, nutrition, fitness, social, economic or pharmaceutical interventions, work best at a personalised health level but also at a wider population health level, which is important for health prevention and building up innate resilience to Covid-19 and other pandemic threats.
The APPG task group is looking at moonshot initiatives like the creation of an open repository for ageing biomarkers to enhance AI-driven research.
As far as a blueprint is concerned for other nations, first, we have a lot to learn from countries like Japan, Singapore, Israel and the Nordic countries, who are ahead in many respects in turning the challenge of ageing into an opportunity for longevity. But, having a mission of HLE+5, which policymakers and other stakeholders can get behind, has been crucial in our success- as well as the drive to just get on with it in a collaborative way.
At the International Longevity Policy & Governance Summit you hosted in November, several speakers suggested that we have to approach policymakers with practical arguments, what we call “The Longevity Dividend” – longevity will raise productivity, cut healthcare costs, etc. What about moral arguments such as “death is bad” or “living longer is good”?
The APPG for Longevity is completely focused on the very important ethical argument of addressing health inequalities and narrowing the gap of healthy life expectancy between the poorest and richest citizens. I would say that achieving health equity and social justice fits within the definition of moral arguments. Personally, I don’t regard death as bad; instead, having a bad death should be avoided, so I would argue that a bad death is bad, and for myself, I would aspire to have a good death. I don’t agree with the blanket assumption that living longer is good; indeed, living longer in bad health with a poor quality of life does not seem to me a desirable goal, so I would instead suggest that living longer in good health is good.
Your recently published book deals with longevity and artificial intelligence. Can you describe its main message in a few sentences?
My book, Live Longer with AI, is about personal discovery and societal change seen through the eyes of several experts. There has been an explosion of books on aging and longevity in the last year, but the vast majority are focused narrowly on either the latest science, or the social implications, or the business potential. This book aims to combine all strands of the debate, synthesizing viewpoints from across the spectrum to mobilize ourselves as citizens in changing how we think about health, engage in our health and how we can change health from its focus on sickcare to one that embraces wellbeing across the lifecourse from conception to death. It explores the impact that AI has on understanding the cellular basis of aging and how our genes are influenced by our environment – with the pandemic highlighting the interconnectedness of human and planetary health. I wanted the book to show the promise and the potential of technology – and how all of us can be optimistic if we tread the path with a sense of shared responsibility and respect for humanity.
The book touches upon many other topics, including the current pandemic. What is your personal take on it? What challenges and opportunities has it underscored?
My book explores how the pandemic has exposed the fracture lines of society and why we need to act fast to prevent another type of epidemic becoming an even greater crisis, one driven not by viruses but by lifestyle-driven chronic diseases.
I was fortunate to have been able to interview one of the world’s most respected virologists, Professor Baron Peter Piot, who is director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and advises the EU Commission on COVID-19 (and who suffered quite badly with COVID-19 himself, as described in the book). I agree completely with his assessment that we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn from the pandemic, a bigger disruptor than even technology itself, to change how we view health – and the steps we need to take to protect it as our greatest asset. The book describes how we can harness data to understand why COVID-19 has impacted people in poor health and in deprived areas most and how to equip ourselves better and build resilience in time for the next pandemic.
Overall, we need to focus far more on prevention, but we also need to tackle health inequalities – and this requires a whole system change of how our society is structured at the moment in the western world. Capitalism has worked well to a point, but the problems with it have been laid bare and we need alternative models to come through.
Do you see a shift towards prevention culture across governments? Do you think this effort now may intensify and become more coordinated in light of the pandemic?
I really, really hope so. Prevention is always going to be better than the best treatment.
We have what the Lancet calls a ‘syndemic’- the lethal combination of a viral pandemic and a more serious epidemic of rampant chronic disease. This is at the heart of the Lancet article I mentioned earlier, ‘Our Unhealthy Nation’. The APPG is focused on supporting the system changes that are needed to focus more on prevention. Of course, government has a key role in enabling this shift and funding it with the instruments at its disposal, but it will require a pan-society effort, involving business, academia, our healthcare system, and citizens themselves.
Technology will play an important role. AI can drive down costs and increase efficiency in healthcare systems and procedures in the current ‘sickcare’ model, in which the response to an increasing aging population and disease burden is to build yet more hospitals. But as AI and data are mobilized to help us stay healthy and well – in preventative health and wellbeing strategies – this could dramatically decrease downstream healthcare costs and vastly improve our quality of life.
Government can support business to have a bigger role. Business for Health, which I referred to earlier, is planning to develop a risk management framework for health aided by the Business Index. We recognize the link between human health and planetary health, and we want to take lessons from climate change into our approach. Indeed, health is where the climate change agenda was 10 years ago. Crucially, we are arguing that we need to prioritize capital for large-scale, long-term, sustainable investment in preventative health and should be guiding investment and innovation decisions by Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) mandates like we do for climate change, applying them to healthy life expectancy and societal health.
In the future, institutional investors should be thinking about the stranded asset risk of things that cause health risks, and businesses should report on health risks like they are doing increasingly on climate issues. Reducing stranded asset risk will minimise shareholder action suits and maximise reputations.
In your book, you are not afraid to discuss the sensitive subject of extreme life extension and even to use the “I-word”: immortality. This is quite uncommon for someone who is trying to muster political and public support for our cause. Most people in our field think that either extreme life extension is a mirage or that we should not talk about it because it scares people away. Do you agree with that? What does your personal experience tell you?
My personal philosophy is that to get a well-informed perspective on any issue, you have to listen to all sides of an argument, including at the extreme edge. The technologies and innovations that are required to achieve extreme life extension and even immortality are motivating some of the scientists, investors and entrepreneurs in this field, but they are also the same tools that will help us achieve a longer, healthier and hopefully better life more generally. My personal belief is that we should focus our energies and resources on achieving a healthier life, that is, to maximise healthspan- but the positive side effect of this is an extended lifespan too. No one can argue with this, whether from a moral, social, or economic standpoint, and this includes politicians too. The COVID-19 experience has profoundly influenced thinking in the longevity field, which is moving towards a position of ‘healthy longevity for all’ so that everyone has equal access to the benefits that developments in science and technology can bring to humanity.
You have interviewed many stars in our field. What do they have in common? Does longevity research attract a certain kind of people?
I am incredibly lucky to meet and interface with leading authorities in the course of my day-to-day work. People like Nir Barzilai, Nic Palmarini, Alex Zhavoronkov, Jose Cordeiro, Sergey Young, and Aubrey de Grey, who I interviewed in my book, are awe-inspiring in what they are achieving yet are incredibly down-to-earth, generous people driven by the pursuit of knowledge and desire to help people. Many involved in longevity are classic mavericks – relentless in their pioneering approach, driven by a burning inquisitiveness and quest for excellence, and challenging convention and the status quo. This goes for Eddie Hall too, the world’s strongest man, who is driven by a ferocious competitive instinct and quest to understand himself- right down to his genetics.
It was striking that in most of my interviews, when I asked people about their secret to living longer well, and what they do personally to achieve this, it really boiled down to the fundamentals. The overriding message was that while technology will empower us in many ways, it’s the simple things in life, whatever our age, that matter most: following a good diet, getting enough exercise, spending time with family and friends, and being optimistic. I would say that having a highly attuned sense of purpose is probably the attribute that was shared by most of my interviewees. That, and a virtuoso level of curiosity!
Google’s AlphaFold AI has generally solved the protein folding problem, which was considered one of the toughest in our field. What’s next? Which breakthroughs do you think we should expect soon?
I was pleased that I managed to include mention of Google’s AlphaFold innovation in the book just before it went to press for publication in October- and well before it hit the headlines in the mass media a couple of months later.
I think the implications and applications of our increased understanding of the microbiome will go big in 2021.
I am also really fascinated by some work, which I refer to in my book, that is about harnessing biological intelligence on a mass scale, not just for people but for all living things. Today, biology has become fully digital, so DNA information can effectively be coded as ones and zeros and can thus be programmed to unleash a powerful nature-inspired innovation engine. Advances in AI and causal machine learning will be able to decode the many complex interactions between all organisms and provide a new foundation for biological discovery and innovation at an unprecedented rate.
As I describe in my book, scientists are now pulling together what they call the “book of life”, the genetic sequences of all complex species on the planet and the relationships between them. So far, they have only decoded 0.28 percent of the relevant DNA, but with DNA sequencing seeing a million-fold decrease in costs since 2003 (when human DNA was first mapped), this has made it more viable. Juan Carlos Castilla-Rubio, chairman of SpaceTime Ventures, has launched the Earth BioGenome Project, which aims to fully sequence everything on the planet, on land and in the oceans, over the next 10 years. When it reaches full sequencing capacity, the project will be generating about 1,000 to 2,000 times more data than that produced by Twitter and YouTube combined.
Castilla-Rubio’s aim is to create a new inclusive bioeconomy that can help solve the majority of humanity’s problems in energy, water, food, materials, healthcare, and transport in a rapidly changing climate. Preserving life on the planet is not only critical to our own survival as a species but also to preserving nature’s vast biological intelligence, which has been codified in the book of life over the past 3.5 billion years of evolution.
I agree with Castilla-Rubio’s view that biology will be the most valuable enterprise in the 21st century, and far more valuable than monetizing people’s data. But we need to make sure we share the value of the assets fairly between and across nations.
Your example shows that one does not have to be a researcher or a renowned scientist in order to make an impact in the longevity field. What is your message to people who want to help our cause but do not know where to start?
Go with your passion and just do it. Big things can happen in very small places, no matter who you are, and where you come from. Collaborate with others, and do far more together!