by Abbey Hull
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?
Hopefully Calico doesn't go the way of Google Glass. (Credit: Calico)
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.”
Learning how to reverse cell damage could be the key to reversing aging. (Credit: Thinkstock)
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?
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