A long-life pill is closer than you think

November 30, 2014
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It was a joke, a dream: the ‘fountain of youth’. Over centuries shysters pedalled their potions to credulous consumers. Now it’s scientists, including an eminent Australian, who say a longevity pill is just around the corner. The promise of a longer, healthier life is no mirage. It’s a real, exciting possibility.

If a pill were available that would extend your life past 100, past 120 would you take it? What if you could be assured the bad bits about ageing – Alzheimer’s, diabetes, strokes – would be confined to the last year? Americans polled on such a question by the Pew Research Centre were unenthusiastic about the prospect. Only 38 percent would be willing to undergo treatments to extend their lives to 120 or beyond. Most didn’t want to live much past 90.

Would Australians feel similarly disinclined? I can think of many arguments against such an extended life span:  boredom with life as the century kicks over; worries about your money lasting; and even if you could work into your nineties, being a burden on the young. Tyrants such as Robert Mugabe would be entrenched even longer in their dictatorships. The old would wield even greater political power. But perhaps most galling, a longevity pill might further exacerbate the gap in life expectancy between the rich and poor. Such a pill would be very expensive at first -– $50,000 a day, according to one researcher  – and unlikely to warrant government subsidy. It could lead to a world of longevity haves and have-nots which would make the current chasm seem like a hair’s breadth.

The science is racing ahead, whatever the social concerns. After decades of false starts, scientists are producing remarkable results that could dramatically extend our lives. At the forefront is the Australian, David Sinclair, professor of genetics at Harvard University, named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2014. He was home recently and told the ABC 7.30 program that scientists made a big discovery 20 years ago of the genes that keep us younger. “And what I’ve been doing ever since is trying to figure out a way to make a medicine, a little pill, that we could take every day to turn on those genes and make our bodies fight against diseases and live a longer, healthier life….

“….we’ve changed (these genes) in animals. The animals live healthier and longer. We found molecules that we feed to the mice, for example, and they can live 20, 30 per cent longer. ….the reason these test animals live longer is because they don’t get cancer and heart disease and Alzheimer’s until much later.” It’s a question of when, not if, we can replicate these results in humans, he went on to say. Sinclair’s team (including scientists from the University of NSW) has created a frisson of excitement around the world. After just a week, tissue from older mice resembled that of six-month-old mice, an amazingly rapid rate of reversal that astonished scientists, according to Aeon magazine. In human years, this would be similar to a 60-year-old becoming like a 20-year-old.

But this is not the only remarkable breakthrough. Aeon reports two teams of scientists from the University of California and Harvard have used blood from young mice to rejuvenate the muscles and brains of elderly mice. And a third development involves an external hormone secreted by nematode worms called daumone. When daumone is fed to elderly mice it reduces the risk of death by 48 per cent. This holds the promise of daumone being developed as an anti-ageing compound.

There’s a long way to go. What earlier life extension research has shown is that humans aren’t mice or yeast, or fruit fly – organisms which because of their short life spans are the usual subject of these experiments. A funny but sobering Infographic in the New York Time called Handy Guide to Longer Living charts the fortunes of previous breakthroughs. In 2011, blueberries were found to extend the life of fruit flies; in 2013 blueberries were found to have no effect on the life span of mice. Research on red wine was promising in worms; sadly, less so in humans.

The rationale for life extension research is that ageing is the root cause of the many ills we tend to suffer as we grow older. Instead of fighting the individual diseases, such as cancer or Alzheimer’s, as we mostly do today, more resources, it’s argued, should be funnelled into understanding the ageing process – what’s happening in our cells –  and trying to slow it down. “Slowing down the process of ageing – even by a moderate amount – will yield dramatic improvements in health for current and future generations,” says Professor S. Jay Olshansky, a pioneer in the field. And David Sinclair assures us that his “nightmare scenario is making people live longer in a nursing home. That’s absolutely the opposite of what we’re doing here.”

I was reading about the life extension research in the week the Productivity Commission released its Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage report. Modest improvement has been made in life expectancy at birth of Aboriginal males and females. But they still can expect to live around ten years less than white Australians. Shameful now, how much further could we push out the longevity gap without it becoming truly obscene? This is no reflection on the scientists. Perhaps sooner than later we’ll have to face the social consequences of their work.

What’s your view of living past 100? Please leave a comment.

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