One of the many wild medical pursuits in Silicon Valley is the effort to slow down the aging process. Sajad Zalzala is trying to make it a reality.
Zalzala, a 38-year-old family medicine doctor based in the Detroit area, has just opened an online clinic called Qalytude, dedicated to anti-aging. As a physician licensed to practice in all 50 states, Zalzala can treat patients anywhere in the country by phone or online, in addition to those who visit his physical clinic.
Initially, Zalzala will be targeting the small but growing segment of Americans who take medicines like Metformin, a type 2 diabetes drug, but for the unintended purpose of staving off aging. Researchers are now finding evidence of reduced cancer risk in the drug, and studies in mice have shown potential for an improved life span, but scientists warn that it might not produce the same result in humans.
“There’s this movement around Metformin that I could see having a snowball effect,” Zalzala told CNBC.
He’s jumping into a market for anti-aging services, products and technologies that’s expected to reach $271 billion by 2024, according to Market Research Engine. Venture capital funds are dabbling in the space as are billionaires like Jeff Bezos and biohackers, who experiment with drugs and supplements for health and longevity purposes.
Making it easier
Zalzala said that only a few clinicians are trained in this field, and they’re highly costly to see and often backed up with patients. Many primary care physicians won’t prescribe Metformin to people who don’t have diabetes until they better understand whether it’s safe.
Zalzala’s goal is to make it easier for people interested in drugs like Metformin to talk to a physician. He plans to hire a team of doctors to conduct research into Metformin and other drugs — both their safety and efficacy — and prescribe them virtually to patients while monitoring them for side effects.
Having previously worked for a handful of virtual medical companies, including Hims and Pill Club, Zalzala is familiar with the model. Hims and Roman are among companies that have sprung up in recent years to help people get medications for erectile dysfunction and hair loss, the types of things that patients are often embarrassed to discuss with a family doctor. Other companies are prescribing medication virtually for birth control, sexual health and prevention, anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Some of these companies require that patients talk to their doctor via video, while others request only that the user fill out a survey. The laws that govern how engaged a physician must be in the process vary by state.
For an area like anti-aging, a medical expert needs to be highly involved in the process.
These drugs “always must be prescribed by a doctor,” said Lisa Suennen, managing director of digital and technology at the law firm Manatt, Phelps and Phillips. “Any drug can be dangerous if it is mixed with something contraindicated,” and it’s especially important to be cautious when they’re being used “for claims that aren’t fully vetted.”
The side effects for Metformin include diarrhea, low blood sugar and abdominal pain, as well as a condition called lactic acidosis that involves excessive acid building up in the body. It also still isn’t well understood whether the drug will provide benefits to healthy people, particularly those who exercise regularly.
Another medicine Zalzala is exploring is rapamycin, which has an immunosuppressant function and is useful in helping patients avoid rejected transplanted kidneys. He’s also looking into so-called NAD booster patches. Both interventions are starting to get tested in the Silicon Valley tech community for their anti-aging effects, even though there are health risks.
Zalzala said he intends to be especially conservative with these untested therapies, but he didn’t rule out the possibility of prescribing them. He said that he will recommend lifestyle and dietary changes and not just pills.
“Most of us don’t have the perfect lifestyle,” he said. “So I’m hoping to add an extra layer of protection.”