Ponce de León had maps and compasses; researchers today have stem cells and AI. But the goal remains the same: Discover the fountain of youth.
Global average life expectancy has more than doubled over the past century, thanks to improvements in public health, medicine, and diet. Even so, some researchers believe we’re on the verge of hacking the code of life completely. According to Larry Page, Google’s $1.5 billion R&D project, called Calico, will “cure death.” Singularity guru Ray Kurzweil preaches that “immortality is within our grasp.”
At the center of the action is the Palo Alto Longevity Prize—a global long-term competition to discover the technological keys to eternal youth. Competing researchers from 30 teams across the globe are studying a variety of factors that contribute to aging, with the hope of restoring the body’s balance and ending—or reversing—aging altogether. Here are five technologies in the competition that look promising:
GERMANY—Longer Life Through Re-Engineered Kidneys
“We see aging of the human being in the deterioration of organ function,” says Christine Guenther, CEO of apceth, a Munich-based cell therapy company. She and her six-person team are studying how stem cells can extend the life of healthy organs. Their research focuses on the kidney because chronic kidney disease is often a gateway condition that leads to heart failure and other health implications. The group is looking at changes in the kidney that lead to loss of function, and then “tuning” adult stem cells and administering them to the organ, with the hope of improving its performance. Says Guenther, “What’s most fascinating is that these stem cells can be tuned or engineered to do exactly what we want them to.”
JAPAN—Optimizing the Lifecycle of Every Organ, Every Molecule
Humans live by the 24-hour circadian rhythm cycle, but a team of researchers in Japan claims that every biological structure in our body functions on its own time cycle. Think about it as a clock within a clock within a clock, says Anirban Bandyopadhyay, senior researcher at the National Institute for Materials Science in Tsukuba, Japan. The human body, for instance, could live for hundreds of years, Bandyopadhyay says, but the reason for ageing is that protein deposition interrupts these “nested lifecycles,” and throws off the body’s harmony. “There could never be one magical solution to end aging,” he says. Instead Bandyopadhyay wants to map all of these human biorhythms to understand how every molecule in the human body is interconnected—and how we can prevent age-related factors from throwing off all of these internal clocks.
RUSSIA—Discovering Hidden Energy in Human Cells
Scientists in Moscow are betting on ATP synthesis—the process of turning cellular enzymes into energy—in the fight against aging. They’re proposing that mitochondria, which live in cells and produce energy, change shape and lose function with age—a process that can cause DNA mutations that might eventually lead to cancer and other diseases. Eldar Kasumov, team lead and general director of the research and production center KORVET, says a deficit of two amino acids that humans stop producing later in life causes mitochondria to become defective.
U.K.—In Search of Metabolic Perfection
A team of researchers at University College London argues that changes to the human nervous system can lead to the development of diabetes and other metabolic conditions that shorten lifespans. They’ve found that the nervous system and metabolism communicate extensively, and say they hope to harness nervous system mechanisms that will keep organs healthy. As Gareth Ackland, lead researcher, explains, “We’re trying to exploit the natural resources of the autonomic nervous system to understand why it contributes to healthier aging.”
U.S.—Big Data for Drug Treatment
Researchers in Baltimore, Md. are using deep learning to study how aging occurs in specific tissues. Alex Zhavoronkov and his company, Insilico Medicine, are analyzing differences between healthy and afflicted tissues, including the brain, eyes, thyroid, and, heart. They’re using computers to simulate how certain drugs will affect those specific tissues—without the need for animal testing or clinical trials. Zhavoronkov says bioinformatics “will ultimately allow us to model human bodies and entire populations in silico and provide a testbed for therapeutic interventions that go beyond drugs and into regenerative medicine and gene therapy.”
As the research competition carries out over the next several years, projects will be evaluated based on their ability to restore what’s called homeostatic capacity—the body’s ability to tap into its own “technology” to function fully for the longest period of time. If they succeed, the implications will be enormous. As the prize website says, “The end of aging would be the end of healthcare as we know it.”