Can Anti-Aging Research Keep Us Healthy in the Long Run?
Searching for the fountain of eternal youth has been the dream of humanity for millennia. While this is still in the realms of science fiction, anti-aging companies are hoping to tackle aging-related diseases by targeting the underlying biology.
Many Silicon Valley leaders have big ambitions and investments in hunting immortality. However, many biotech companies in the anti-aging field have a more humble aim: helping us to stay healthy as we age.
Age is a big risk factor for several common diseases, including cancer, cardiovascular disease and dementia. By treating the aging process itself, the theory is that you could prevent multiple diseases in one go. Some lucky individuals, known as supercentenarians, experience few health problems until extreme old age, so this aim isn’t as far-fetched as it seems.
The biology of aging is monstrously complex, but researchers have narrowed it down to several principal ‘hallmarks of aging’, which include cells breaking down, lack of stem cells in tissues, and unstable DNA. Most research in the field focuses on treating one or more of these hallmarks.
Last month, many companies and researchers gathered at the Undoing Aging conference in Berlin to share their work in the anti-aging field. I spoke with some of them to find out how close these anti-aging treatments are to becoming a reality.
How close are we to an anti-aging treatment?
Anti-aging has recently begun attracting big investments, with giant companies getting involved. Google, for example, has poured money into the US biotech Calico to develop anti-aging treatments. The US company Unity Biotechnology includes the US Mayo Clinic and the CEO of Amazon amongst its investors. “Investor interest in anti-aging has already plateaued,” Cash said. “I would say I can’t see it getting any higher. I think it’s at its peak now.”
That said, targeting aging is currently difficult because it’s not an official disease according to the EMA and FDA. Instead, companies are limited to targeting a specific age-related disease each time with these treatments. The American Federation for Aging Research aims to buck this trend with a planned clinical trial testing the effect of the approved diabetes drug metformin on multiple age-related conditions instead of just one.
Cash believes that it’s time to change the public consciousness to accept the aging process as an official target for drug development. “Maybe in the future, once we have motivated the FDA and EMA to start considering aging as an indication, then we can use these molecules that we’ve found for age-related diseases for aging in general,” he explained.
Another challenge could be the biotech industry’s approach to finding anti-aging treatments. “Companies are investing in each one of the hallmarks of aging. ‘Let’s have a horse in the race for every one of these hallmarks and maybe one will work out,’” Ives said. “This model doesn’t confront the fact that we don’t know everything there is to know about aging.”
Furthermore, there are mixed opinions regarding the feasibility of finding an anti-aging treatment in the near future. Cash was enthusiastic about the prospects. “There’s one camp that thinks aging is a stochastic process involving too many pathways and too many processes, and we’re never going to find a drug to hit all those processes,” he said to me. “I think data – genetic data and pharmacological data in animals – do not suggest that and do not support that. It actually supports that we can hit individual targets and extend lifespan.”