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  • Andy Sambidge

Age is just a number – and that number is $33trn

This article has been originally published for Arabian Gulf Business Insight

The Middle Eastern population is growing older and life expectancy may reach 120 in a few decades

As companies join the global race to prolong life, the Gulf is positioned to lead the way in preventative medicine

“Live long and prosper” may be a quote from science fiction, made famous by a Star Trek movie in 1979, but its sentiment is driving real growth in today’s global scientific economy.

The global longevity sector is tackling the diseases of ageing, such as cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s, which have replaced infectious diseases as humanity’s leading cause of death.

Today the sector is estimated to be worth $26.5 trillion and is expected to reach $33 trillion in 2026. It involves over 50,000 companies, more than 10,000 investors and over 1,000 research and development (R&D) hubs – and the Middle East region has an opportunity to play an important role in its future.

According to James Peyer, CEO of US-based Cambrian Biopharma, a major player in the sector, the Middle East can come to the fore by supporting and fostering the industry with clinical trials, a major obstacle to the development of new drugs to treat the diseases related to ageing – or the “major predators” as he refers to them.

“A key challenge is how we run clinical trials to approve these drugs,” Peyer said.

“That’s the barrier to investment. We need strategies for approving drugs. I’ve talked to friends and investors from the Middle East and I think there is a real opportunity here because the US and US regulatory agencies have been very slow to attempt to support and foster the innovation with clinical trials.

“The clinical trial infrastructure in the Middle East has come along so far and I don’t think people realise how advanced it is and quality of hospitals is incredibly high.”

Longer lifespan

Jim Mellon, co-founder and chairman of Juvenescence, a UK-based life sciences company that develops therapies and products to modify ageing and help people live longer, added the opportunities for the longevity industry in the Gulf region were “evident and compelling”.

Mellon, also one of the founding members of the Longevity Biotechnology Association (LBA) with interests in numerous industries including clean food and property, told AGBI: “Lifespan in the Arabian Gulf has caught up with the West in the past couple of decades. This is due to rising affluence and better healthcare.

“However, the fast food diet of many people in the region has resulted in an explosion in diabetes, which brings its own challenges.

“Likewise, the rising age of populations in the region needs a whole new response.”

According to Anastasia Lit, director of investor relations and business development in Europe & MENA at Deep Knowledge Group, the longevity industry is transforming the way we age.

“Progress in longevity is no longer a question of advances in sciences and biomedicine.

“Synergies across the sectors and subsectors that make up longevity, such as preventative medicine, biomedicine, longevity science, investech, fintech, agetech, and so on, are driving everyday progress.

“The longevity sector has the potential to deliver substantial ROIs while providing tangible benefits for humanity more than any other industry in history.

“The sector presents solutions for the socio-economic problems an ageing population will bring about.”

However, she added that the longevity industry’s potential is buried in its structural complexity, which also proves to be hurdles to its expansion.

“A practical and effective longevity finance infrastructure needs to be created to boost industry knowledge and make investment in longevity easier and clearer,” she said.

Middle East is playing catch-up

The size of the longevity sector is staggering. According to the Longevity Investment Digest, the US leads the way with a total of $672 billion invested in 26,654 companies.

China, the second largest country in terms of longevity investment, has seen a total of $167 billion invested in 2,158 companies so far.

After China comes the UK, where funds are mostly raised from public sources and IPOs, as opposed to private investors.

Lit added that significant investments in healthcare infrastructure by GCC governments and the increase in the number of hospitals and clinics have raised the quality of healthcare services in the region and contributed to the increase in life expectancy.

For example, the Department of Health Abu Dhabi has developed a list of core targets to support the goal of increasing residents’ wellbeing through prevention of diseases and access to integrated, innovative, high-quality, and cost-effective healthcare.

Also, the National Policy for Senior Emiratis is based on an integrated care system to ensure that seniors remain active and continue to enjoy access to government services.

Lit predicted that, with the development of medicine and technology, the longevity sector in the Gulf could reach significant levels.

In 2020, the market size of the longevity sector in the UAE surpassed $19 billion, and it is projected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 8.5 percent to reach $32 billion by 2026.

Peyer agreed that the Middle East region has the potential to play a bigger role in the sector in the years to come.

“Capital in the life sciences is primarily in the US and also the UK, but individual breakthroughs are happening all over the world, he said.

“There’s been very little in the Middle East so far but that’s because scientific breakthroughs take time.

“A decade ago the Middle East was just starting to turn the gas on in relation to top quality academic plans so I suspect we will see universities in the Middle East punch above their weight in a way that they are not at the moment, starting towards the back end of the decade.

“So far there hasn’t been enough time to build a fully fledged translational drug discovery sector in the Middle East even though there has been quite a lot of progress establishing a basic research centre of excellence.”

According to the LBA, human life expectancy has nearly doubled since 1900 thanks to medicine’s immense progress against infectious diseases.

However, a consequence is that the diseases of ageing have replaced infectious diseases as humanity’s leading cause of death.

The overwhelming majority of healthcare costs in the developed world are spent treating these diseases, such as cancer and Alzheimer’s, which typically become chronic and debilitating conditions that can last for decades – and the developing world is rapidly approaching the same predicament.

Peyer, also one of the founding board members of the LBA who earned his PhD in stem cell biology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Centre, said the ambition to help people get into their 80s or 90s or even over 100 without experiencing disability or death from predator diseases is what gets him and his team at Cambrian up every morning.

”I think that is highly realistic in the next few decades,” he said with confidence despite admitting there had been little progress made over the past 15 years.

“We’re better at diagnosis but compared to when President Nixon in the US declared the war on cancer in the early 70s, the proportion of people worldwide who die has gone up, not down, quite dramatically.”

So what can realistically be achieved? Lit said she believes that with further development in the longevity industry in the future, life expectancy will likely begin to approach 120 years while changing the process of ageing from a “sickness” into an opportunity in which health extension adds wellness to years of life.

“Slowing ageing will extend a healthy lifetime, which would be of enormous societal and economic worth globally,” she said.

“As life expectancy increases and the longevity economy expands, the traditional structure of the economy will change dramatically and new financial products will emerge.

“Such an economy will contribute to GDP growth through employment and human capital.”

Anastasia Lit believes growing old will be a positive opportunity rather than a “sickness”

Inside the global longevity sector

Deep Knowledge Group recently revealed the world’s largest healthy ageing database mapping the entire longevity sector globally.

The database encompasses over 50,000 companies, more than 10,000 investors and over 1,000 R&D hubs, across 20 sectors and 160 sub-sectors, containing over 9.5 million data points.

An emerging industry in the MENA region, longevity is estimated to be worth $26.5 trillion in 2022 and expected to reach $33 trillion in 2026 globally.

Hussain Al Mahmoudi, CEO of Sharjah Research Technology & Innovation Park, said: “Healthy longevity plays a role in increasing life expectancy, extending the elderly’s productivity and improving their health and wealth.

“This is at the heart of our efforts as an organisation and as a nation.

“Longevity is affected by many factors such as economic growth, government healthcare policies, the quality of healthcare providers, and the extent to which senior citizens have access to all of that.”

In 2006, the World Health Organisation developed the concept of Age-Friendly Cities — key destinations for people who seek to live comfortably during their twilight years.

While Age-Friendly Cities can be viewed as good places to retire, “Longevity Valleys” are expected to emerge as ideal locations where senior citizens can remain professionally, mentally, socially, and economically active, for as long as possible.

What is the Longevity Biotechnology Association?

The LBA is a non-profit organisation representing global leaders in geroscience and gerotherapeutics, the development of new medicines and therapies to prevent and cure, rather than merely manage, the health conditions of late life.

It is driven by a shared belief that every person deserves a life that is healthy, full and long.


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