How To Reverse Ageing and Stay Young Forever
We've successfully reversed cell ages by 25 years, but not without consequence.
In 5 BC Herodotus wrote about the fountain of youth - a magical spring that restored the drinker's youth and kept them young forever.
In 2019, Diljeet Gill, a phD student at Babraham Institute, found that cell transformation stopped at the right time could de-age old human cells, making them "younger" by almost 25 years.
In January 2022, Altos Labs was launched, with funding of $3 billion. With its investors reportedly including billionaires Jeff Bezos, Yuri Milner, and Peter Thiel, Altos absorbed Gill and his supervisor Wolf Reik among some of the biggest industry experts to find the answer to ageing.
Altos Labs' top leadership includes the former head of Glaxosmithkline's R&D team, Hal Barron, the former director of the US National Cancer Institute, Rick Klausner, and the former Senior Vice President of Genentech, Ann Lee-Karlon.
Their mission? To find the modern-day fountain of youth, and find a way to cheat death.
"The goal of Altos will be to reverse the ravages of disease and ageing that lead to disability and death, reinvigorating and extending the quality of life."David Baltimore, Board member
Altos Labs' primary goals is to find a solution to ageing, the problems that come with growing old, and to try and extend human life by 100-200, maybe even 300 years.
"Now more than ever is the time to restructure our approach to health by understanding, slowing, and even reversing the processes that lead to illness and death."Francis Arnold, Board Member
So how goes the search for eternal youth? Can we reverse ageing yet?
The Search For Eternal Youth Is....Well....Old
Like Herodotus in 5 BC and Altos Labs in 2021 searching for a way to remain young forever, humans have attempted to "scientifically" reverse ageing, or stop the worst effects of ageing from as far back as the 16th century onwards.
In 1550, an Italian nobleman Luigi Cornaro wrote The Art of Living Long - where he spoke about fixing one's habits to live longer. This would be what we call in modern terms, lifestyle changes.
His ideals embraced old age and didn't treat it as a disease that needed to be eliminated.
However, come the 19th century, and scientific advances pointed out the many diseases and failings that come with age, and stated that old age and disease were inextricably tied together, making old age something to be feared and hopefully destroyed.
Around this time, the search for a solution to ageing would branch into two paths. The first path, like Cornaro's work, sought to slow down ageing and eliminate what they believed were the causes of ageing - physical health markers.
In the modern age, these steps include exercise, eating healthy, getting your nutrients, sleeping adequately, and other lifestyle changes. The second path that would break away, and what we're going to explore further, was scientific de-ageing.
This approach looked at ageing as a disease itself, to be "attacked and killed".
While the first path has enough and more to support its effectiveness, the second is still growing and changing. But we're now closer to scientifically stopping or reversing ageing, than we've ever been before.
How Are We Trying to Cure Ageing?
The contemporary search for a cure to ageing began as far back as 2013, with the creation of Calico, a company funded by Google co-founder Larry Page.
Calico, which stands for California Life Company, began with the aim of solving ageing and age-related illness. The company's focus was on curing the illnesses that come with age. Interestingly, Calico lost two of its top scientists in 2017 - Hal Barron and Daphne Koller. In 2022, Barron joined Altos Labs as CEO.
So how are organizations like Calico and Altos Labs trying to reverse ageing?
What Causes Ageing?
Sit down, because this is going to get complex. Ageing is a result of telomere shortening. Telomeres are little things at the end of chromosomes and they divide and replicate while growing shorter over the period of your life.
After a lot of replication, they can't divide any further, they reach a state called 'senescence', and that's when you start "ageing". This shortening isn't all bad though.
Telomere shortening prevents the progress of tumours and helps fight cancer. But senescent cells also release inflammatory substances which lead to the other illnesses and failings that come with old age.
Your body slowly loses its ability to run maintenance on your cells, and your organ health slowly starts to decline. So now that we've explained that, let's look at the approaches that some of these age-reversal companies are trying.
The latest of man's attempts to reverse ageing is a research document, which hasn't been peer-reviewed, released by Calico in 2020 which shows that cell reprogramming can "restore youthful expression" in cells, but comes with high tumour risk.
This means it could either reverse ageing but also cause uncontrolled duplication of cells leading to a tumour. The conclusion the paper draws is that de-ageing is possible, but the current reprogramming approach could lead to cancerous tumours.
Definitely not a comforting trade-off.
How Has India Contributed to Reversing Ageing?
In 2018, an Indian-origin scientist, Dr. Keshav K Singh, professor of genetics, pathology and environmental health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, showed that mitochondrial function was tied to ageing and accelerated ageing in mice by artificially depleting mitochondrial function. He likened it to the Ayurvedic concept of kaya kalpa which literally translates into "body immortal".
The study concluded that restoring mitochondrial function could restore ageing skin to a more youthful, healthy condition and also stimulate hair growth.
In this study, ageing was artificially induced by introducing a drug called doxycycline into the mouse, and as the drug was stopped, the mice de-aged, or their skin grew more youthful and their hair growth restarted in earnest. But still, no actual method to reverse ageing in humans.
Even the studies done by Diljeet Gill and Wolf Reik in 2019, which showed that cell reprogramming to change regular cells into stem cells could make them younger by as much as 25 years, showed that it came with the increased risk of tumours.
Are There Other Ways to Reverse Ageing?
Other therapies that claim to reverse ageing include Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (HBOT).
HBOT has many useful applications including treating carbon monoxide poisoning, gas gangrene, decompression sickness, and cyanide poisoning to name just a few.
However, a study published in Aging journal in 2020 was used by many HBOT clinics to promote the claim that HBOT could reverse ageing by affecting telomere shortening.
But what these didn't mention, is that the study had a remarkably small sample size, under 30 people, and that the changes in telomere shortening were non-significant.
So, there's not nearly enough scientific evidence to show that HBOT can de-age you. In conclusion, we don't have a proven way to reverse ageing in humans now. At least, not without incident.
So What's The Bottom Line?
The ageing industry is set to hit $610 billion by 2025.
But as recent as 2021, studies have shown the inescapable march of time and its effects on all living things.
So, apart from the unnatural extensions of life that may become viable in the coming years, decades, or centuries, the present challenges - of increased tumour risk and a dearth of successful human trials, have kept the idea of eternal youth as just that - an idea.
Further, while some billionaires like the 57-year-old Bezos continue to search for a way to not grow old, others, like Bill Gates, have called the search for immortality "egocentric".
"It seems pretty egocentric while we still have malaria and TB for rich people to fund things so they can live longer. It would be nice to live longer though I admit."Bill Gates, Founder, Microsoft
Gates has spent millions of dollars through various charitable organizations, as well as his own Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to cure disease and provide care to the needy.
So, is the search for eternal youth simply the result of an old man's longing to be young again? Or will the benefits help all humans?
And more importantly, what could be the fallout from artificially extending our lifespans to such unnatural lengths?
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