Trends, Trends, Trends

The thing about trends is that they exist right up until the point at which they don't; they are best used as tools to corral the boundaries of uncertainty, and never as the basis for firm predictions. In the case of healthy life extension - and the medical research trends driving it - the worst thing that could happen would be for everyone to look at the trends, think "great, job well done, we're on course!" and then fail to contribute to further progress.

A trend is not a beast with a life unto itself. A continuing trend only continues because research is funded, people are hard at work, results are achieved, and support for progress is growing.

A reminder on the trends that make us feel better about the prospects for later - and longer, healthier - life can be found over at the Longevity Meme. Hopefully they don't make us feel as though we can coast by without helping make these trends a continuing reality. In light of that post, I thought it worth pointing out a Scientific American piece from last week entitled "Trends in Research, Business and Policy":

[Alzheimer's] treatments might one day be based on a synthetic protein fragment Robert P. Hammer of Louisiana State University has developed to disrupt formation of the plaques believed to provoke massive brain cell death in Alzheimer's patients. The plaques are aggregations of fibers that form when individual amyloid-beta peptides begin abnormally sticking together. Hammer also tweaked building blocks of amyloid-beta, synthesizing a non-sticky version of the amino acids that permit amyloid-beta proteins to bind to each other. Adding the engineered fragments to a test tube of normal amyloid-beta blocked the proteins' ability to form fibers, even after four months' exposure. If it does the same in human brains, tens of millions of Alzheimer's sufferers might finally be liberated from a deadly burden of poisonous plaque.

...

The promise of stem cells was again reaffirmed by an experimental therapy to treat patients with lupus - a disease in which the patient's immune system targets the body's own tissue. A group led by Richard K. Burt of the Northwestern University, Feinberg School of Medicine, removed stem cells from the patient's bone marrow. Drugs then wiped out the population of white blood cells before the stem cells were returned to the body, where they formed new white blood cells that were less likely to make damaging antibodies. In a study of 48 patients, half did not have the disease after a period of five years.

...

Although we may not be able to re-grow limbs as salamanders do, the human body does have intrinsic regenerative power, and the discipline of tissue engineering has discovered ways to exploit it. Biodegradable scaffolds made of both natural and synthetic fibers can be seeded with cells that come together to form sheets that mimic the body's natural matrix of soft tissue.

...

The exorbitant cost of deciphering a person's genome dropped sharply in 2005, from $20 million to roughly a tenth of that amount. DNA sequencing technology using off-the-shelf equipment devised by George M. Church at Harvard Medical School and collaborators at Harvard and Washington University in St. Louis may help realize the federal goal of reducing that price to $1,000 by 2015, which experts say would make it practical to decode an individual's genes for routine medical purposes.

...

Conventional wisdom specifies that the central nervous system--the brain, spinal cord and eye--cannot heal in adults. Once injured a patient remains impaired for life. Experiments with animals have demonstrated regrowth of injured nerve fibers. But these techniques often need to be applied at or before injury. The standard thinking no longer holds. Larry I. Benowitz at Children's Hospital Boston and his colleagues found a molecule that triggers better nerve regeneration than any other studied-and one that that proves effective when applied days after injury. The scientists discovered that a protein, oncomodulin, is secreted in damaged eyes by immune cells known as macrophages. They found that oncomodulin, when given with compounds that enhance its activity, can increase nerve regeneration fivefold to sevenfold in rats with injured optic nerves.

The trend in biotechnology and medicine is onward and upward, at an accelerating pace. The burning question is whether this trend can be sustained and harnessed in the direction of enabling healthy longevity by repairing the root causes of aging, and not just patching up diseases one by one.

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