Photo courtesy of Lada Nuzhna

The 23-year-old trying to make everyone live longer

Lada Nuzhna on her work against ageing—and the ethical dilemmas posed by longevity
October 4, 2023

It was in hope of understanding the mysteries of the universe that Lada Nuzhna, then 18, left Ukraine for the US. Nuzhna had grown up in Avdiivka, a war-torn city near Ukraine’s border with Russia. 

In 2015, shelling forced the closure of Nuzhna’s school. She left home to live alone in Kyiv—where she finished her schooling—before starting a physics degree at Northwestern University, Illinois in 2018.

Nuzhna, a voracious infovore, wanted to know what happens when black holes evaporate; what governs the delicate equilibria of gravity, light speed and electromagnetism that enable life; and what there was before the Big Bang.

But on hearing this, a friend of hers—a biology student—asked her: “How long do you think you’d have to live to see those questions answered?”

It would take centuries, Nuzhna realised. That was the moment the direction of her life changed, and she turned to the study of long life. 

Longevity is a nascent, idiosyncratic field whose most high-profile members—questing scientists and maverick billionaires—adopt unusual habits and make outlandish predictions. The venture capitalist Peter Thiel was rumoured to have taken longevity-enhancing blood transfusions. (When asked, he said: “On the record, I am not a vampire.”) Bryan Johnson, a tech tycoon, has taken blood transfusions from his 17-year-old son. Aubrey de Grey, one of the field’s best-known scientists, said in 2008 that the first human to reach 1,000 years of age was probably already alive. 

Critics accuse the field of pseudoscience, hyperbole and playing God. Yet it should not be written off. As longevity scientists point out, the study of cancer and heart disease receives much more funding than does the study of ageing—even though ageing is the root cause of much ill-health. Now, the field has begun to attract billions in investment, as well as some of the world’s brightest young scientists.

Nuzhna is both a bright young scientist—in 2021 she received a prestigious Thiel fellowship worth $100,000—and one of the stewards of those billions. After receiving the fellowship, she dropped out of university. She helped found and now runs Impetus Grants, which funds ageing research that would not be supported by governments or academia. At the age of 23, she is one of the most influential people in the field of longevity.

I meet her at the Francis Crick Institute, where she has been contributing to a protein engineering project. In person, she is down-to-earth and wry. We talk about her background. “For some time, I had trouble explaining where I’m from, because one day it would be part of the occupied territory, and another day it would be part of Ukraine.”

Nuzhna calmly, and with occasional levity, dismantles common objections to her work. “I’ve even heard phrases like: ‘Having a shorter lifespan makes life more meaningful.’ If you died at 15, would it seem like the most amazing life you could ever live?”

Bryan Johnson and his like are sometimes portrayed as selfish, but Nuzhna thinks longevity could enable deeper bonds with people we love. “No one would ever complain about having 20 more years with their loved ones.”

Solving the problem of ageing would create many new problems, she acknowledges. “What if every dictator lived 100 years?” she asks, bringing to mind Vladimir Putin. “There’s a phrase: ‘Revolution happens one death at a time.’

“The moral dilemmas of longevity are real. But I think it’s a much bigger problem that people are dying.”

Nuzhna exercises often, and keeps her eating within an eight-hour window, but doesn’t engage in bizarre longevity protocols. (Blood transfusion, she says, “has meagre impact on lifespan in mice”.)

But she hopes to seed methods that will make blood transfusions look antiquated. If longevity scientists’ work ever makes a clinical breakthrough, the world will change profoundly. As I leave the Crick, I wonder about booking a follow-up interview in the year 2123, and what that world might look like.