Diane Francis: Treating aging like a disease is the next big thing for science
LOS ANGELES — Extending everyone’s life in a healthy fashion is one of many goals held by Peter Diamandis, a space, technology, aeronautics and medicine pioneer. But the new field known as “longevity” is of interest to everyone.
“One hundred will be the new 60,” he told his Abundance360 conference recently. “The average human health span will increase by 10+ years this decade.”
He, like others in Silicon Valley, believe that aging is a “disease” and the result of “planned obsolescence,” or the wearing down of, or damage to, certain critical mechanisms, sensors and functions within our bodies. Longevity research is about identifying the core problems to mitigate or reverse them.
The average human health span will increase by 10+ years this decade
The exponential technologies of artificial intelligence, machine learning and computational heft have been harnessed, and have resulted in breakthroughs and clinical trials that are just a handful of years away from deployment on human patients. The main areas of research include: Stem cell supply restoration, regenerative medicine to regrow damaged cartilage, ligaments, tendons, bone, spinal cords and neural nerves; vaccine research against chronic diseases such as Alzheimers; and United Therapeutics that is developing technology to tackle the organ shortage for humans by genetically engineering organs grown in pigs.
New tools are accelerating the development of new, tailor-made medicines at a fraction of today’s costs. Alex Zhavoronkov of Insilico Medicine told the conference that drugs take 10 years and cost $3 billion to research and 90 per cent fail. But his company can test in 46 days using human tissue, then model, design and produce in weeks with the help of advanced computing.
In regenerative medicine, advances appear to be arriving relatively soon. For instance, Diamandis asked the audience if anyone was awaiting a knee replacement operation and suggested that they might be better off postponing these until 2021 when regenerative medicine innovator, Samumed LLC in San Diego, is expected to complete phase three clinical trials of cartilage regeneration.
Samumed’s founder, Osman Kibar, said his company has successfully injected a protein that activates nearby stem cells into producing new cartilage in a knee or a new disc in a spine. Preliminary success has also occurred to regenerate muscle and neural cells, retinal cells, skin and hair. Not surprisingly, the private company just raised US$15.5 billion to continue research and product development.
Another hot area of early stage research is called “epigenetic reprogramming” or identifying how to reverse deficiencies in proteins, stem cells, chromosomes, genes that repair DNA and damaged cells. A leader in this field is David Sinclair, professor of genetics at the Harvard Medical School, whose new book “Lifespan: Why We Age — and Why We Don’t Have To” explains the science and offers advice.
“Aging is a disease, and that disease is treatable,” he said. As research progresses toward actual corrections or cures, there are also lifestyle habits that can slow down the aging process, or avert damage. For instance, he said humans should replicate some behaviour that their bodies were “designed” for. Obviously, exercising and sleep are necessary but so is eating less often. “You should feel hungry regularly,” he said.
Another condition that is useful to emulate is “hormesis,” a scientific term for what Neitzsche posited which was that “that which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Sinclair recommends stressing our bodies with temperature changes such as going from a hot sauna to rolling in the snow. This invigorates the body’s processes and cells.
There’s also “xenohormesis” or gaining benefits from eating plants that have been environmentally stressed, therefore contain more beneficial nutrients. For instance, drought-stressed or “wild” strawberries have better flavour but they also are enhanced with additional antioxidant capacity and phenol content.
“The age of 100 is easily in sight now,” said Diamandis. “And kids born today can expect to live to 105.”