The ideas surrounding life enhancement are not new—in fact, records show an interest in the mysteries surrounding human life for centuries.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein explores the idea of creating a life, while Doctor Who achieves life extension through regeneration. Wolverine’s mutations let him heal away his problems, and Captain America froze himself into the 21st century. Just look at almost any Star Trek episode and you’ll see how fascinated people are with the idea of extending life.
These ideas are starting to extend beyond science fiction. What was once seen as fiction is, in fact, highly relevant in today’s scientific community. Life extension research lives in academia at the moment, but it’s also graining traction in nonprofit foundations and national organizations.
This scientific field aims not only to discover the solutions to life’s unanswered aging questions, but also allow humanity to “live long and prosper.”
Why bother with this research?
The “holy grail” of the life extension industry is the cure to aging (obviously) and its discovery would change the course of human history forever.
However, when looking at life extension from the viewpoint of the Average Joe, there are many very real, personal, and emotional reasons which can be tied to the desire for those extra years.
“Seeing friends and family age can be difficult to go through,” said Dr. Chris Barton, assistant professor of biology at Belmont University in Nashville, TN. “As a result, I think that we are becoming more conscious of the aging process and more intentional about trying to find ways to delay it.”
When did life extension research really begin?
Interest in life extension has existed for decades– one of the largest booms in life extension research began in the 1990s. In 1992, The American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine was established to explore the mysteries behind our bodies’ aging process.
From then the new millennium began, and with it came companies such as the Methuselah Foundation, co-founded by Dave Gobel and Dr. Aubrey de Grey in 2003, and through its leadership came the “Strategies for
Engineered Negligible Senescence,” or SENS Research Foundation, founded in 2009. In 2013, Google announced its new company Calico, who under the leadership of Arthur D. Levinson would focus on human health in relation to aging and its associated diseases.
“Nothing breeds success better than success,” Dr. Barton explained when reviewing the recent boom in anti-aging research out of these foundations. “While many of these advancements are in basic science research, it is really this foundational understanding of aging that has allowed us to detect and treat numerous aging-related diseases.
“If you look at the life expectancy data from 1960 to today, people are clearly living longer”—life expectancy in the United States alone jumped from age 70 in 1960 to age 79 in 2014, according to The World Bank. “We are currently more effective in treating conditions such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other aging-related diseases than we were 30 years ago. I think the recent success we’ve had in these areas is developing an excitement for aging research that can perhaps generate discoveries and technologies that may even further extend our life expectancy,” he continued.
The different areas of life extension research
These companies challenge current researchers and scientists to study the mysteries surrounding aging. The Methuselah Foundation focuses on Organovo and the ability to 3D print functional human tissues with hopes of creating functioning organs, while the SENS Research Foundation focuses on rejuvenation biotechnologies with new therapies which target and repair molecular damage responsible for the body’s aging.
With a Ph. D. in Biochemistry from Vanderbilt University and specializations in physiology, cell biology, and molecular genetics, Dr. Barton was able to provide insight into one of the many areas of research currently being studied among those in the field of life extension and anti-aging.
“Perhaps one of the most popular views behind the aging process is the ‘stem cell theory of aging,’ which states that as we age, our stem cells aren’t able to continue dividing to replenish the cells that are being lost in our tissues and organs,” Dr. Barton explained, believing this to be an area of research holding great promise.
“In addition, every time a cell divides there is the potential for it to accumulate some type of damage to its DNA. Given that stem cells must divide over an entire lifetime, they tend to accumulate quite a bit of damage. It is really the inability of our stem cells to continue growing indefinitely that many believe is the root of the aging process. Without a healthy pool of stem cells, tissues and organs are no longer able to maintain themselves in a way that supports life.”
The hope for researchers is to promote the field and provide the world with a hope for advancement and, one day, a solution.
“Scientific progress, particularly in academia, is most often hindered by the decreases in government funding,” Dr. Barton said. “When large organizations such as these are willing to contribute funds or resources in order to advance research on a specific topic, I think they immediately become relevant to the larger research community.”
And, in the case of anti-aging and life extension research communities, the relevancy of their research extends much further than that in everyday culture, aging treatments, diseases associated with aging, life expectancy, and the overall quality of life every single person will one day encounter with age.
So why haven’t we found the solution to aging yet?
We can’t see the forest because of the trees—seemingly small breakthroughs are vital to the much larger picture of anti-aging research. Dr. Barton explains it best:
“Far too often, significant strides in research are overlooked because the results from years of research don’t reach expectations that were far too optimistic from the beginning.
“For example, people are often discouraged that the scientific community hasn’t ‘cured’ many diseases despite the amount of money that is contributed to its cause—let’s use cancer as an example. But what is often ignored are the data showing that people are now living much longer following a cancer diagnosis, it is a disease that often is very manageable, and in fact there are specific types of cancer that are mostly curable. So, if the expectation was that science should have completely eradicated cancer by now, there will be disappointment from some. However, if the expectation is realistic in that science should be continually moving forward in a way that is allowing us to treat cancer patients and allow them to live a relatively normal life while successfully treating and managing their disease, we have made tremendous progress.”
Past research has already guided scientists in the direction of life extension and anti-aging. Comparing life during the 1960s to now, many studies have been published over the decades exploring both the harmful lifestyle choices and the beneficial additions to our diets and daily lives in order to extend our quality of life.
Even though these studies appear not to provide a solution, they do in fact provide steps which have allowed humanity to extend its lifespan further than ever in today’s society. It is not only the grand breakthroughs which have allowed us to live longer, but also the research which impacts our daily living.
“Though it’s hard to grasp now, there was a day when we were sincere in our belief that tobacco products were not harmful to us. It is through scientific research and advancements that we have pulled a majority of people away from that line of thinking,” Dr. Barton discussed. “I think it is important to realize that research isn’t only critical for identifying novel drugs or technologies that will increase lifespan—it is equally important for identifying the seemingly harmless lifestyle choices, which we all make, that may actually be harmful to lifespan and the aging process.”
So what does that leave us with in terms of life extension research?
These foundations and organizations formed within the past 30 years are providing the world an area in which life extension and anti-aging, through various means, can be explored, and that the mysteries behind life’s finitude can be explained to allow our longevity and quality of life to continue on long into the future.
“In the last 20 years, research has moved forward in such a way that we are able to better understand why we age, what causes aging-related conditions, and how to better diagnose and treat these conditions,” Dr. Barton concluded. “The bottom line is that life expectancies are longer today than they were 20 years ago. With that, I’m quite confident that science will continue to move forward. I think that we are on the brink of some amazing advancements in the field of research and technology. As long as the funding and resources are available, I feel confident that another 20 years of aging research can result in a life expectancy that is even greater than the present expectancy. In that sense, I believe that the research does represent a goal that is certainly possible within the next 10-20 years.”
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