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5 Things We Need Before Ageing Can Be Cured

Posted on 25 January 2024

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The dream of slowing down or reversing the ageing process was once firmly within the domain of science fiction. Now, an increasing number of scientists think that this goal could be achieved within the lifetime of people born today, and perhaps even within your lifetime. Ageing is very complex, comprising many separate biological processes, and is likely to require complex solutions. Yet many of the biggest problems currently facing this area of research are mundane in nature. The Longevity Biotech Fellowship Bottleneck Consortium recently interviewed 400 professionals across the longevity sector and asked them about the biggest problems facing their field. Based on their responses, here are 5 things we need in order to move longevity research forward.

5: A Better Informed Public

Photo by Jacek Dylag on Unsplash

The existence of legitimate research aimed at reversing human ageing is much more widely known than it was a few decades ago. Popular media outlets are publishing stories about this research quite frequently. Unfortunately, many people are still fundamentally misinformed when it comes to the longevity field and its goals.

Perhaps the most common and damaging misconception is that work on the ageing process comes at the detriment of efforts to cure age related diseases like cancer. In reality, the primary goal of ageing research is to delay the occurrence of age related diseases so that people can enjoy healthy life for longer. Another common misconception is that ageing research is something only wealthy people will benefit from. For people to support funding and policies that favour ageing research, they need to be shown how it can benefit them.

4: Clearer Regulations

When designing a drug to treat a specific disease, certain regulations need to be followed to ensure that research is ethical, that participants are properly informed, and that potential benefits to patients are sufficient to justify the inherent risks that come with testing a new drug. Treatments that target ageing need to be approached differently because they are mostly aimed at preventing a whole host of diseases and biological changes, rather than curing a specific condition. This changes how they need to be tested and makes risk and reward hard to assess.

Current regulations simply aren’t built to accommodate treatments targeting general ageing, which is why most scientists choose to test their treatments on specific diseases of ageing instead. The problem with this is that a drug that truly slows ageing would delay the onset of heart disease, cancer and dementia, but it might not do anything in people who already have these conditions. Alternatively, the drug might only work in one of these diseases because it’s targeting a component of ageing that isn’t that important in the other two. Thus, the lack of a proper regulatory framework prevents us from testing treatments in a way that would be most valuable to us.

3: Better Models

The only way to know for sure whether a treatment works in humans is to test it in humans. Before that can happen, we need to test it on models of ageing, whether they be cell cultures or animal models. Unfortunately, our current models don’t replicate the conditions of human ageing very well. At the most basic level, typical lab animals live much shorter lives than humans and do not get the same age-related diseases, so we cannot expect them to give us an accurate picture of how human ageing works. Cell cultures, meanwhile, do not replicate the complex interactions that occur in a human body containing hundreds of different cell types and trillions of individual cells. 

2: More Funding

While things are improving, the funding allocated for ageing research is far from matching the scale and complexity of the challenge, nor is it proportional to the impact that slowing the ageing process would have on human health. Even though delaying the ageing process would substantially reduce the burden of diseases like cancer, Alzheimer’s and heart disease, development of treatments for each of these conditions individually receive orders of magnitude more funding.

This is not to suggest that research into individual diseases of ageing should not be pursued. However, it is objectively preferable to get Alzheimer’s at age 70 and die the same year than to get Alzheimer’s at age 60 and survive 10 years. If we want the former and not the latter, we should invest more heavily in treatments addressing the underlying cause of these diseases, which is the ageing process itself.

1: Better Biomarkers

To test whether a treatment slows ageing, we need a way to measure ageing. This is perhaps the biggest problem currently facing ageing research, and one that hasn’t really been solved. A biomarker of ageing is a measurable biological factor that scientists can use to objectively determine how rapidly someone is ageing. Unfortunately, a precise and reliable biomarker that reflects all of the complex biological changes associated with ageing has yet to be found.

The most widely used biomarker currently is DNA methylation. As we age, molecular ‘tags’ are added and removed from our DNA and influence how it is read. The presence of these tags at certain key sites can be used to estimate how quickly someone is ageing, but there are many other components of the ageing process not directly linked to DNA methylation. Methylation also varies across different tissues and can be influenced by environmental factors. Until we have better biomarkers, there’s always going to be some uncertainty over whether a treatment is actually slowing ageing or simply altering the biomarker itself.

This is by no means a full list of the challenges highlighted by the Bottlenecks Consortium. Some other issues that were often cited included a lack of data sharing between researchers and a lack of talented people entering the field. The latter is to some extend a secondary effect of bottlenecks we talked about here, such as lack of funding and regulatory hurdles, which could both discourage researchers from getting involved. We recommend you check out this article summarising the Consortium’s findings, as it contains a more detailed breakdown of the results with charts and infographics.

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    Longevity Bottlenecks: LBF Bottlenecks Consortium

    Longevity Bottlenecks

    Title image by Danie Franco

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