Grow old with me,
The best is yet to be
- Robert Browning, “Rabbi Ben Ezra”
Are anti-aging projects morphing into shades of Dracula? Are mad scientists getting involved? Or are we witnessing the first steps of amazing advances in medicine that will benefit people around the world?
These are just a few of the questions being asked about new approaches that just possibly may delay or even prevent aging as well as some of the dreaded diseases associated with this. This by itself is remarkable, but some scientists believe that it may be possible to take this a step further and reverse the aging process itself. While there is a long way to go to get there, recent developments are both encouraging and exciting.
All of these efforts are an attempt to remain young and healthy forever. This certainly is not a new ideal - it has been around for centuries, if not millennia, and has eluded even the most brilliant people. But advances in science and technology are improving the chance that one day this will become a reality. We’ve already seen hints of this, as the life expectancies of both men and women have increased substantially in recent decades. And new drugs and treatments recently approved by the government or expected to be soon offer the possibility of extending life still further.
While no one can say with certainty what progress (if any) will be made going forward, investors and speculators are optimistic and are betting billions that new advances will indeed be made.
One experiment to prolong life that impressed scientists took place back in 1993. At that time, Cynthia Kenyon, a biologist who worked at the Univ. of California, was able to double the lifespan of a worm from three weeks to six by mutating one of its genes. According to Newsweek, the implications of the experiment were even more important: It suggested the possibility that drugs that could increase longevity without targeting specific diseases. It also suggested that it may be possible to control the aging process itself.
Other scientists pursued very different approaches. One doubled the life of lab mice by restricting their caloric intake; he later suggested that humans would also benefit by doing this and wrote a series of books that elaborated upon this idea.
Other recent experiments have become much more ambitious. Two papers, published in 2011 and 2014, discussed an experiment in which blood from young mice “seemingly had miraculous restorative powers on the brains of elderly mice,” Newsweek reported. These results were no fluke, as other studies yielded very similar findings.
These and many other developments have caught the attention of both the scientific world and the public. The National Institute of Health said that there is a growing interest in geroscience, a study that is trying to get a better understanding of exactly what it is about aging that makes it a major risk factor for contracting serious health problems, and studying possible ways to manage or even to prevent those.
Fortunately, scientists have been making headway. In the last six years, Alkahest, a company researching this area, has identified more than 8,000 proteins in human blood that show potential in therapies. Alkahest’s efforts, along with those of its parent company Grifols, have resulted in at least six phase 2 trials that either are currently underway or that have already been completed. These drugs are being tested for their potential to treat a wide range of age-related diseases, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Meanwhile, other anti-aging drugs from very different perspectives also are being studied. For example, breeding strains of baker’s yeast, fruit flies, and worms have enabled the worms to live longer, and has led to an anti-aging drug called rapamycin that is now in clinical trials. A still different approach has targeted various molecules, hormones, and proteins, which may be able to protect and repair damaged cells. According to Newsweek, “a whole host of other anti-aging drugs may not be far behind.”
As a result, “scientists have new found confidence that aging can be measured, reverse-engineered, and controlled,” states Newsweek.
Speculators and investors on the lookout for promising investments have been watching developments in the industry closely and have been so impressed that they are pouring billions of dollars into biotechs. Some of those firms are trying to develop drugs that could clean the body of “metabolic junk” and other non-beneficial cells that sometimes accumulate with age. Other companies are attempting to make older cells function with the efficiency of younger ones.
Some governmental organizations are also getting involved. For example, the National Institute of Aging, which is part of the National Institute of Health, recently announced plans to spend about $100 million over the next five years on basic research aimed at understanding “cellular senescence.” All of these represent just the tip of the iceberg of money being infused into this industry.
“You have no idea how many people are interested in investing money in longevity,” said Dr. Nir Barzilai, the founding director of the Institute for Aging Research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University, and the founder of a company aimed at mitochondrial health. “Billions of dollars have already been committed.”
All of this may sound wonderful. Unfortunately, a flip side to this coin is not as good. For one, some anti-aging drugs are already appearing on the “gray” market, raising concerns that scammers and cheaters are fooling vulnerable people by peddling anti-aging snake oil. Others point out a problem even with drugs that do deliver: wealthy individuals who can afford to pay exorbitant prices will be able to purchase them, while low income people and those who are of modest means will be left out in the cold, unable to share in the benefits anti-aging medicines bring.
Currently, the FDA has not yet approved any drugs that target the aging process itself. But this does not mean that there are no drugs or treatments being sold to wealthy aged people who hold out hope of a Fountain of Youth. In fact, there are. Currently, the culture of youth prevails: It is admired, pursued, respected, and dictates a preference in job opportunities, while the aged too often suffer from silent discrimination.
The idea that blood of young people could help reverse some of the effects of aging has caught on in some circles. One private company was caught selling liters of “young” blood - in some cases from youths approximately 16 years old and in other cases blood from children. One liter of blood from these individuals was being sold for as much as $8,000 each and two liters for $12,000; it was shut down by the government. But this was just one company, and it’s said that many others continue to operate and are raking in money.
“There’s a hunger in our culture for any anti-aging therapy,” said Dr. Margaret Goodell, professor and director of the Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine Center at Baylor College of Medicine. “Everyone wants to try something new, and this sounds kind of cool, as if there’s something magical in the blood of young people.”
Maybe so. But it also raises a variety of very complicated questions. At what point does the right to life cross a line and become unethical? Is buying and drinking blood for therapeutic purposes in the category of taking medicine, or is downright ghoulish? Is it unethical for individuals and/or companies to sell products that may have health benefits if they do not have government approval? Must wealthy people be forced to watch their health decline and not try to prevent that simply because others can’t afford to pay for such treatment?
These questions were once relegated to science fiction novels and exercises in philosophy classes. Today, they have become all too real. And as the population continues to age, brace yourself for treatments and medicines that not very long ago would have been considered macabre, weird, and unethical. All of this is still more proof that we are living in the strangest of times - as if we really needed more proof of this.