The Stage is Set for More Rapid Progress Towards Human Longevity in the Next Decade

Today's popular science article is a tour of a few of the higher profile lines of research and development relevant to treating aging as a medical condition. The state of the field has changed greatly over the last decade, not least of these changes being a vast increase in the funding devoted to clinical translation of age-slowing and rejuvenation therapies. Cynically, I suspect that it is the funding that ensures that the popular science press takes a more respectful tone than they did ten years ago. It is much harder to advance (in writing!) a knee-jerk dismissal of a field of science when billions of dollars of funding and many large, conservative institutions are involved, as they are these days.

As you read the article, spare a thought for the many people - scientists, advocates, entrepreneurs, and philanthropists, some of whom are no longer with us - who spent years to decades laboring in comparative obscurity to build the foundations that led to the present stage of growth and interest in producing viable treatments for degenerative aging. The sudden sea change of public perception, funding, and breadth of research over the past decade, and indeed the advent of the entire longevity industry as it stands today, didn't just happen by accident. Success tends to erase the slow and painful process of bootstrapping that came before it, but that bootstrapping was still necessary and valuable.

Can ageing be cured? Scientists are giving it a try

Scientists are great at making mice live longer. Rapamycin, widely prescribed to prevent organ rejection after a transplant, increases the life expectancy of middle-age mice by as much as 60 percent. Drugs called senolytics help geriatric mice stay sprightly long after their peers have died. The diabetes drugs metformin and acarbose, extreme calorie restriction, and, by one biotech investor's count, about 90 other interventions keep mice skittering around lab cages well past their usual expiration date. The newest scheme is to hack the ageing process itself by reprogramming old cells to a younger state.

What about us? How far can scientists stretch our life span? And how far should they go? Between 1900 and 2020, human life expectancy more than doubled, to 73.4 years. But that remarkable gain has come at a cost: a staggering rise in chronic and degenerative illnesses. Ageing remains the biggest risk factor for cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer's, type 2 diabetes, arthritis, lung disease, and just about every other major illness. It's hard to imagine anyone wants to live much longer if it means more years of debility and dependence.

But if those mouse experiments lead to drugs that clean up the molecular and biochemical wreckage at the root of so many health problems in old age, or to therapies that slow-or, better yet, prevent-that messy buildup, then many more of us would reach our mid-80s or 90s without the aches and ailments that can make those years a mixed blessing. And more might reach what is believed to be the natural maximum human life span, 120 to 125 years. Few people get anywhere close. In industrialised nations, about one in 6,000 reaches the century mark and one in five million makes it past 110.

Human biology, it seems, can be optimised for greater longevity. Unimaginable riches await whoever cracks the code. No wonder investors are pouring billions into trying. This work is powered by artificial intelligence, big data, cellular reprogramming, and an increasingly exquisite understanding of the zillions of molecules that keep our bodies humming. Some researchers even talk about "curing" ageing.