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Since the discovery of aging genes in the 1990s, aging and life extension has been on the radar of scientists and investors alike. Today, factors as diverse as genetics, the environment, and big data are coming together to inform the field of longevity research.
The article “Selling long life” published in Nature Biotechnology defines longevity research as “an effort to extend the period of healthy life by slowing the biological process of aging.” In essence, this research attempts to slow down biological time, so that the negative health implications of old age are reduced and postponed as much as possible.
Human life spans have gradually been increasing, so that people life for longer than ever before. However, with this life extension comes unique problems associated with old age. Cancer, diabetes, obesity, and dementia are becoming increasingly damaging and increasingly prevalent. As health policy expert Jay Olshansky recognizes, “the rise of [these diseases] is largely a product of living long enough to experience them.”
Longevity investing seeks out solutions for these diseases, in an effort to help people live longer with a better quality of life. One interesting initiative is The Resilience Project, a collaboration between Stephen Friend, of Seattle’s Sage Bionetworks, and Eric Schadt, of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. This project seeks out individuals predisposed to childhood diseases who have gone on to become healthy adults. Studying these individuals will help to identify the second-site mutations and environmental factors which help to ensure continued health, despite carrying disease-causing mutations. This project will yield a massive data set, which will become an immense asset in our understanding of aging, life extension, and the field of longevity investing.
Recent research into aging has revealed it to be a polygenic trait, or a complex combination of factors including genomic instability, mitochondrial dysfunction, altered intercellular communication and stem cell exhaustion. Essentially, aging must be understood as a collection of age-related diseases, rather than one single issue.
However, the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries operate on a different model. The vast majority of research and development focuses on targeting one disease for treatment, a far cry from the multiple factors which work intimately together to cause aging.
Nir Barzilai, the director of the Institute for Aging Research at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine, argues that the drug industry’s localized solutions to problems related to aging are too limited to make a significant difference towards increased longevity or life extension. He explains that “if we do not delay aging, all we can hope for is to exchange one disease for another.”
The 2013 Public Policy and Aging Report affirms this perspective, with the finding that eradicating cancer would only add three years to the average life span (eliminating circulatory disease, diabetes, and cancer together would increase life expectancy at birth by 15.5 years).
Therefore, the drug industry has to change in order to effectively deal with the demands of an aging population. Barzilai suggests that a new generation of therapeutic agents might be a solution to this problem, yielding “huge longevity dividend[s].”