“The tools to enhance and extend our lives are already in our hands. We just need the courage to question outdated assumptions that limit our ability to use them.”Ray Kurzweil, Inventor & Futurist
How can we live longer? How do we become healthy enough so that we can extend our lifespans by 5, 10, or even 50 extra years? And it’s not just about living longer, but also feeling younger. For example, what if you could feel 25 at the age of 75? These are the big questions scientists have been trying to answer for decades, with few answers.
While aging itself isn’t a treatable disorder or condition, companies and researchers focused on longevity are looking at bodily processes at the cellular level to see how aging progresses and trying to find the right drugs, treatments, and vitamins that might slow these processes down. And as a result, we may discover the key to longevity or living a longer life.
The regenerative medicine market is enormous, with the global regenerative medicine market projected to expand at a CAGR of 10.3% during the forecast period of 2021 to 2028, according to a research report by Transparency Market Research (TMR). Players operating in the global regenerative medicine market are spreading awareness among the patient pool about the different advantages and disadvantages of regenerative medicines. These efforts are helping enterprises in improving clinical outcomes. At the same time, such initiatives allow patients to make informed decisions about their treatments.
Since the 1980s, when scientist Tom Johnson mapped the first “longevity” gene, there’s been more progress made in understanding how we age and how we can slow it down. And the similarity between aging and age-related diseases is increasingly becoming the focus for many of these longevity research initiatives — many researchers studying age-related diseases like Alzheimer’s are now collaborating with researchers looking at aging more broadly. Recent studies have identified key traits — referred to as hallmarks of aging — that attempt to define what aging is. The primary characteristics are depicted in the graphic below:
Some futurists believe that we are nearing a time when we can extend a person’s life expectancy almost indefinitely. For example, Ray Kurzweil speaks about a concept called “longevity escape velocity.” It’s an intriguing notion that soon, science will be able to extend your life by more than a year for every year you are alive. Once that happens, we can begin to think about true longevity. Ray predicts that we’ll reach longevity escape velocity in the next ten to twelve years. Professor George Church of Harvard Medical School echoes that same time frame. Aubrey de Gray, chief science officer of SENS Research Foundation, has been promoting longevity research since 2005 and agrees with Kurzweil and Church.
This model is predicated on the fact that exponential technologies such as AI, CRISPR, gene therapy, DNA reading and writing, robotics, digital manufacturing, sensors, and networks, are accelerating and focusing on health.
I’m not sure I’ve bought into the idea of longevity escape velocity just yet. And I’m not alone. For most, the concept of achieving age reversal or “longevity escape velocity” may sound like science fiction. But, as you can see in the market growth statistics quoted above, venture funds and government programs are pouring billions of dollars into the field every year. Any way you cut it, that is a lot of capital accelerating the rate of healthspan and age-reversal technologies.
Putting aside the technology and investment for a moment, the “other side of the coin” argument that must be addressed is the impact that life extension would have on society. With any new technology used in human health, there are unintentional downstream effects to think about — especially since aging or age-related diseases can be challenging to study due to the length of time needed to fully evaluate a therapy’s full range of effects, both in the short- and long-term.
What about society as a whole? Would it be better off if life spans were doubled? A doubling of the human lifespan will affect society at every level. Notions about marriage, family, and work will change fundamentally, as will attitudes toward the young and the old. Then you have the issue of access to these potential life-extending technologies. Will they only be available to the wealthy and developed nations? Will the poor and developing countries have the resources to access these technologies? While opinions differ wildly about what the ramifications for society will be if the human lifespan is extended, most ethicists agree that the issue should be discussed now since it might be impossible to stop or control the technology once it’s developed.
Then there are the regulatory hurdles involved. The FDA considers aging a natural process and won’t approve drugs to treat it. As already mentioned, dozens of companies are now working on therapies that could potentially extend overall human health and lifespan. Still, none of them are working specifically toward approval for aging because the FDA wouldn’t even know where to start. They would like the industry, first, to show that it’s possible to change the rate of aging, which many view as backward, but that’s what they want.
Here are some of the developments I’ll be watching as science and medicine tackle the issue of human longevity and disease:
- Senolytics: part of a new, emerging area of research known as “senotherapy,” in which senolytics is a key class of therapeutics. Senotherapeutics include geroprotectors — drugs that are supposed to be able to prevent or reverse aging by targeting its cellular triggers, such as damage to the DNA. These drugs are in the early stages, and there’s no guarantee they’ll be approved by the FDA, as mentioned above.
- Stem cells: Stem cell research is one of the most promising areas in regenerative medicine. Therapeutics derived from placenta stem cells is one example of this growing area of research, and startup Celularity is striving to make this happen.
- Organ regeneration: As a vital part of regenerative medicine, 3D bioprinting of tissues and organs present a novel way to restore lost structures or functions.
- Parabiosis: Parabiosis is an experimental procedure that circulates shared blood between a younger and an older animal, according to the National Institute of Aging (part of NIH). One startup working in this area is Elevian, using its GDF11 (Growth Differentiation Factor 11) protein. This naturally occurring circulating factor may decline in older people, although this hasn’t been verified yet.
New anti-aging research efforts are gaining traction. And with technology continuing to provide novel solutions, finding ways to extend our lifespans may not be so far away. While we’re not close to having these fountain of youth treatments on drugstore shelves, we may be seeing the first wave of what could ultimately redefine the human experience – for good or ill is still to be determined.