In recent decades, we’ve witnessed a boom in longevity research. Thanks to the discovery of the 9 hallmarks of aging, first heard of in 2013 in the journal Cell, we’ve started understanding what happens when we age. Our bodies undergo a series of processes over the years. These processes make us incapable of fighting disease and, in most cases, lead us to what we know as the “death of old age”. Now, longevity research has been advancing (and we will discuss how in this article). The question remains whether these advances are fast enough, or if we should instead rely on cryonics for the opportunity of an extended life in the future.
As you think about it, let’s have a look at the main five research areas that might deliver the much-awaited cure for aging.
One very important area of longevity research involves the treatment and prevention of diseases and injuries. The body of a healthy, young person is normally equipped to fight diseases. As one gets older, however, these defense mechanisms weaken. It isn’t uncommon to fall ill and die from flu or infection caused by a simple cut when one is old!
The reason for this can be found in the 9 hallmarks of aging, which contribute to several age-related problems. Genome instability and mitochondrial dysfunction, for example, lead to the accumulation of mistakes at a genetic and cellular level. Loss of proteostasis contributes to the piling up of damaged proteins. Because of telomere attrition, cells become unable to divide anymore. If you add this to the effects of stem-cell exhaustion and cellular senescence, it’s not surprising that the body ends up in trouble. The aging human organism, faced with a series of errors, malfunctions, and cells unable to regenerate, struggles to fight any disease.
This is why one of the essential aspects of longevity research is to develop treatments and drugs that can overcome diseases.
Let’s have a look at some interesting therapies that could shape the future of longevity research.
Stem cells are undifferentiated cells that can turn into specific cells when the body needs them. There are two different types of stem cells. Embryonic stem cells are the ones you can find in an embryo. They are pluripotent cells: they can divide into more stem cells or can become any type of cell in the body. Somatic cells instead are in a non-specific state, but they are more specialized than embryonic stem cells. From the moment we are born, our body is equipped with a certain number of somatic stem cells, which are important for the creation of new body tissue. As the years go by, the number of these stem cells we have available decreases. Should the body contract a disease that creates tissue damage, not having stem cells available would be a problem.
Happily, therapeutic research on longevity is trying to develop stem cell therapies. Stem cells are grown in the laboratory and specialized into the required tissues. They are then implanted into the patient to repair injured tissues. People who might benefit from these therapies include those with spinal cord injuries, type 1 diabetes, Parkinson's disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Alzheimer's disease, heart disease, stroke, burns, cancer, and osteoarthritis.
At the moment, the only available stem cell therapy is bone marrow transplants (which can help treat blood-related diseases such as leukemia). The advancement of research in this field could help defeat many age-related diseases.
One way to lengthen people’s lives is to treat diseases that would otherwise kill them. Another way is to anticipate these diseases and prevent them from doing harm. Tis is where the field of medicine defined as predictive diagnostics comes into play.
Predictive diagnostics use large amounts of data to make predictions and determine outcomes. It can be useful in accurately predicting whether a person might contract a certain disease. It can help define how a patient will react to a certain treatment by comparing their real-life data with a database of previous cases. It can assess the possibility of relapse after diseases such as cancer. It can even predict patients at risk in their homes and assist them before the situation becomes serious.
Imagine if it were enough to put together some data to be able to predict that a certain person will fall ill. Doctors would then be able to treat the disease at its early stages when it is still manageable. Not only would many lives be saved, but also time and resources that could be used to solve other problems.
At present, most predictive medicine is based on laboratory tests, genetic tests, and even simple blood tests. For example, we are well aware that blood cholesterol is a biomarker of risk for coronary heart disease, and prostate-specific antigens (PSA) are associated with prostate cancer.
But the possibilities offered by predictive medicine combined with artificial intelligence are much more advanced than this. You have probably heard of some laboratories that offer the possibility of analyzing your DNA. All you have to do is send a saliva sample by mail. In a couple of weeks, you receive a report on your genetic history, your ancestors, and how your DNA influences your facial features, taste, smell, and other traits. On top of that, some brands offer the opportunity to get health insights based on your DNA. For example, you may find out that your genes are more sensitive to type 2 diabetes. Having this information, wouldn't you change your lifestyle to avoid this disease?
For the time being, these services are fee-based. Furthermore, we haven't yet developed the algorithm necessary to put together and draw precise conclusions from the mass of data we are slowly accumulating. But if this service became common practice in hospitals, many life-threatening diseases could be avoided.
Now, early detection and treatment of diseases go hand in hand with personalized medicine, aka precision medicine.
This term was introduced to the public for the first time on April 16, 1999, when a short article entitled “New Era of Personalized Medicine: Targeting Drugs for Each Unique Genetic Profile” appeared in The Wall Street Journal. Yet, the idea of customized treatments wasn't new. Since the beginning of time, it was clear that not all people respond in the same way to the same treatment. If you give a specific drug to two people with the same disease, it's possible that one will make it and the other won't. Why does this happen?
Finding an answer to this question (and an appropriate solution) is the aim of personalized medicine.
Personalized medicine consists of customized therapies that are tailored to an individual’s unique medical profile. By looking at genetic markers, it’s possible to determine effective treatments.
Today, the world’s biggest killer is ischaemic heart disease, responsible for 16% of the world’s total deaths. If you include other cardiovascular diseases, the percentage rises to 18%. Twice as much as the second biggest cause of death, cancer. These figures are not all that surprising. The heart, an organ weighing on average just 300 grams, can be seen as the engine of the body. Over the years, this motor that beats 100,000 times a day wears out. If longevity research wants to deliver results, it must inevitably address this issue.
In the latest decades, research on cardiovascular genetics has had some successes in uncovering new therapeutic targets. For example, researchers found out that two drugs used to avoid blood clotting, warfarin and clopidogrel, are affected by specific gene polymorphisms. In the case of warfarin, polymorphisms in the genes encoding the molecular target of the drug affect the dose required. In the case of clopidogrel, a variant in the gene encoding a specific enzyme affects the drug’s efficacy. Knowing the exact DNA sequence of the patient can help select the most efficient treatment. Much research still needs to be done in this field, yet we can already see its great potential.
How can we not talk about artificial intelligence? The uses of AI in medicine are generating impressive results. The only question remains where they will take us in the future.
The idea behind artificial intelligence is to create machines that can think like human beings (e.g. logical and rational thinking), with a thousand times more power. They are capable of analyzing a massive amount of data in a very short time. Imagine your doctor being able to compare your medical history with that of a billion people in just five minutes. They could probably draw more precise conclusions and prescribe rather suitable treatments.
AI applications will revolutionize all aspects of longevity research. They can help predict the possibility of disease and produce drugs that are more effective and patient-specific.
An interesting example of AI for aging research is the one built in 2021 by the University of Surrey. This machine learning model can identify chemical compounds that promote healthy aging. The research was carried out on specimens of Caenorhabditis elegans - the same worms used for cryopreservation research! At the end of the research, they managed to define three compounds that increased the life span of 80% of the sample: flavonoids, fatty acids, and organooxygens. Used as supplements and prophylactic, they could reduce the chances of contracting certain diseases and extend life.
Last but not least, human cryopreservation is the ultimate longevity research. While it doesn’t focus on the present time, it may be the best chance for people alive today to effectively extend their lifespan.
Through the use of very low temperatures and cryoprotectant agents, our standby teams can stop all biological activity of a person shortly after their legal death. This means that the body can be paused before degradation takes place. As the body can be stored indefinitely, longevity research will have all the time it needs to advance and defeat old age. Once research has developed sufficiently and medical technology can treat the causes of death, cryopreserved patients could possibly be revived and live long into the future.
It’s hard to say how high the chances of cryonics being successful are. Yet the chances of finding a cure for old age in the next few decades are not so high either. It is up to you to decide whether it’s worth trying this path. Looking at the direction in which medical technology is progressing, there is cause for optimism.