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Tech searches for fountain of youth

Technologists are famous for upending and redefining entire industries, from finance to media. Now, some of these same visionaries are targeting a much grander goal: extending life.

Oracle's Larry Ellison, Alphabet's Larry Page, billionaire investor Peter Thiel and CEO Jeff Bezos are among the entrepreneurs pouring money and resources into drugs and therapies designed to slow the effects of aging and its related illnesses.

If they're right, the average lifespan of 79 years will be a thing of the past, and humans could live for decades longer.

"The science is really good now," said Elad Gil, a tech entrepreneur who received a Ph.D. in biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and currently invests in anti-aging start-ups. "It is at the point where there is enough evidence and data around these drugs and molecules."

Like many of his peers, Gil built his credibility on the internet by selling a company, Mixer Labs, to Twitter in 2009. He now sees opportunity in this next generation of biotechnology.

Start-ups targeting anti-aging drugs and therapies have raised $523 million in the last four years, according to CB Insights. Much of this market is still in the lab, with scientists testing therapies on mice. But longevity evangelists are targeting human trials within 18 months.

Accounting for the bulk of the capital raised is a San Diego-based project called Human Longevity, which is compiling a million-person database of DNA and clinical information designed to find ways to extend a healthy human lifespan.

The company runs a clinic called Health Nucleus. For $25,000, patients receive a full day of tests and medical profiling, including personal health history, genome sequence analysis and advanced digital imaging that the company says has detected numerous diseases including cancer in seemingly healthy patients.

To date, Human Longevity has raised more than $300 million from investors, including GE Ventures and Celgene.

Researchers are also experimenting with new uses for existing pharmaceuticals. For instance, scientists at the Buck Institute — a nonprofit research center on aging in Novato, California — have conducted studies on a drug called rapamycin.

This FDA-approved drug is an immunosuppressant that can be used to prevent organ rejection after transplantation. At the Buck Institute, scientists discovered that after being dosed with rapamycin, lab mice suffering from age-related heart disease experienced significant improvement in cardiac function. The drug also has been shown to extend the lifespan of mice by as much as 14 percent.

Another anti-aging start-up is San Francisco-based Unity Biotechnology, which is developing medicines that selectively target and eliminate so-called senescent cells. These are damaged cells that make and release inflammatory molecules that harm the cells around them, contributing to osteoarthritis, atherosclerosis as well as eye and kidney diseases.

Ned David, Unity's co-founder and president, says the start-up's therapies have already...