Monkey glands. Goat testicles. Fermented donkey milk. All have been investigated over the centuries by those pursuing the elusive elixir of eternal youth.
Today, however, the dream has moved on. Forget face serums to make you look 24 at 94 – anti-ageing now has a serious purpose. Some of the world’s finest scientific minds are devoted to exploring every gene and cell in our bodies to work out how to stave off the ageing process and keep us healthier for longer.
Bankrolled by billionaires such as Amazon boss Jeff Bezos, so-called ‘rejuvenation science’ is now big business, played out in the heart of Silicon Valley.
The new anti-ageing ideas range from drug treatments to bonkers-sounding procedures such as injections with a young person’s blood
Bankrolled by billionaires such as Amazon boss Jeff Bezos, so-called ‘rejuvenation science’ is now big business, played out in the heart of Silicon Valley
The new anti-ageing ideas range from drug treatments to bonkers-sounding procedures such as injections with a young person’s blood.
And, surprisingly, there is some solid science behind the latter.
Several studies in the 1990s and early 2000s showed that older mice injected with the blood of younger mice saw a boost in the proteins responsible for repairing damaged tissue, as well as better brain, muscle and liver function. The US Government’s National Institute For Health is funding independent research into the treatment.
The quest for immortality is no longer the focus. More recently, it has also become about extending something called healthy life expectancy, or ‘healthspan’.
The term – which means the number of years spent before you develop age-related chronic diseases – has been discussed frequently by Ministers in the past few weeks as part of the Government’s Levelling Up agenda.
One of the key aims is to narrow the gap in average healthy life expectancy between the most deprived and wealthiest areas of the UK. In Blackpool, healthy life expectancy stands at just 55, compared with 71 in leafy Richmond upon Thames in South London.
Ministers have pledged to raise the national average healthy life expectancy from 63 to 68 by 2035. But the average Briton can expect to live until the age of 80, and no one wants to live for more than a decade in poor health.
Now experts have taken on the challenge of extending our ‘healthspan’ even further.
Professor Dame Linda Partridge, a geneticist at University College London, says: ‘There is an ethical imperative to try to find ways of keeping people healthier longer, to try to reduce this period of loss of function at the end of their lives.’
One method being explored is giving healthy people medicines that treat diseases such as cancer and diabetes years before the diseases develop.
In 2014, US researchers made a remarkable discovery about an antibiotic usually given to transplant patients.
Several studies in the 1990s and early 2000s showed that older mice injected with the blood of younger mice saw a boost in the proteins responsible for repairing damaged tissue, as well as better brain, muscle and liver function
In experiments, dogs given the drug, called rapamycin, in mid-life had above-average heart function for their age. They were also less likely to suffer age-related cardiac issues in later life, compared with a group of dogs not given the drug.
Other animal studies have found it can increase overall life expectancy by up to 38 per cent and result in more energy later in the creature’s life.
Early studies in humans show it has a rejuvenating effect on the immune system. Stanford University researchers found that older people given a six-week course of rapamycin had an unusually strong response to the flu jab, and developed fewer infections, compared with a group who were not given the drug.
Currently there are more than 2,000 trials looking at the anti-ageing effect of rapamycin worldwide – 1,000 of them in the US.
Another drug being investigated is the diabetes treatment metformin, which has been used since the 1950s to reduce blood sugar levels. But studies found that people who take it live longer than those taking different diabetes medication, and marginally longer than people who don’t have diabetes.
So how do these drugs work? Scientists believe the effect on the body is similar to that of fasting diets – long known for their anti-ageing benefits.
Calorie restriction has been shown in studies to have a rejuvenating effect on damaged cells.
In experiments, dogs given the drug, called rapamycin, in mid-life had above-average heart function for their age. They were also less likely to suffer age-related cardiac issues in later life, compared with a group of dogs not given the drug
The lack of nutrients causes the body to break down its own cells for energy, and the first to get used are those that are damaged or malfunctioning. This results in a cull of old, half-dead cells, which could have gone on to cause diseases in later life, while a greater proportion of healthy cells remain.
Studies have shown the number of dead cells someone has is directly linked to the risk of age-related conditions such as dementia, cancer and diabetes, among other age-related problems.
Fasting also causes the body to start using fat stores for fuel, which stimulates the release of a chemical that has been shown in some studies to promote new connections in the brain, boosting cognition.
Drugs such as rapamycin and metformin trick the body into thinking nutrients are in short supply, triggering the same effect.
Silicon Valley companies investing in research into these drugs have come up with a new term for them: senolytics. And some are being tweaked to specifically reverse the effects of ageing.
US studies have found that animals given the senolytic medicine dasatinib – which is already used to treat leukaemia – were less likely to develop age-related crumbling of the spine.
It was also found to increase the animal’s lifespan by 25 per cent, and improve heart and kidney function in later life.
One California-based start-up, Unity Biotechnology, is developing drugs said to purge the body of ageing, dying cells.
It unveiled early findings from its first human study – looking at whether a newly developed senolytic could improve age-related sight loss – and reported improvement in vision and reduced damage to the retina, the tissue at the back of the eye that sends images to the brain. Further, larger studies are already under way.
Other Silicon Valley-backed scientists believe the secret to turning back the clock lies in our genes.
In 2006, Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka discovered the tiny tweaks in our DNA that could transform cells into younger versions of themselves. Today, a number of Silicon Valley start-ups, including Jeff Bezos’s firm Altos Labs, are studying this technology to see if it can prevent age-related diseases.
Previous studies have found that using these genetic tweaks reduced signs of ageing in mice and extended overall lifespan by six weeks. Another 2020 study found the technique could fully restore the eyesight of ageing mice.
Do these innovations hold the key to eternal youth, or even being healthier in old age? I just hope I’m around long enough to find out.