More Popular Science Commentary on the Longevity Industry

It is interesting to see the present state of popular science commentary on efforts to treat aging as a medical condition, given the recollection of widespread skepticism and mockery even as recently as a decade ago. The large-scale funding, many serious research programs, and dozens of new biotech companies are ensuring that the popular science press at least does its homework on the science underlying the prospects for human rejuvenation before committing an opinion to paper. Today's bootstrapping era of progress is very different from the turn of the century, a great deal more is being accomplished, but these are still only the first steps on a longer road, populated by many more travelers than presently the case.

Scientists now have a good handle on what causes us to age, biologically speaking: The so-called "hallmarks" of the aging process range from damage to our DNA - the instruction manual within each of our cells - to proteins that misbehave because of alterations to their chemical structure. Most excitingly, we now have ideas of how to treat them. By the end of 2023, it's likely that one of these ideas will be shown to work in humans. One strong contender is "senolytics," a class of treatments that targets aged cells - which biologists call senescent cells - that accumulate in our bodies as we age. These cells seem to drive the aging process - from causing cancers to neurodegeneration - and, conversely, removing them seems to slow it down, and perhaps even reverse it.

A 2018 paper showed that in experiments in which mice were given a senolytic cocktail of dasatinib (a cancer drug) and quercetin (a molecule found in colorful fruit and veg), not only did they live longer, but they were at lower risk of diseases including cancer, were less frail (they could run further and faster on the tiny mouse-sized treadmills used in the experiments), and even had thicker, glossier fur than their littermates not given the drugs.

There are more than two dozen companies looking for safe and effective ways to get rid of these senescent cells in people. The biggest is Unity Biotechnology, founded by the Mayo Clinic scientists behind that mouse experiment and with investors including Jeff Bezos, which is trialing a range of senolytic drugs against diseases like macular degeneration (a cause of blindness) and lung fibrosis. There are many approaches under investigation, including small proteins that target senescent cells, vaccines to encourage the immune system to clear them out, and even gene therapy by a company called Oisín Biotechnologies.


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