There's More Future in Your Future

January 01, 2003  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Scripps Howard News Service  ·  Biotech

For millennia, hucksters have hawked worthless baldness remedies and longevity potions. But now there are two FDA-approved hair growth drugs. The longevity therapies are coming too, and they’ll have many of us living well into the 22nd century.

Life expectancy has already steadily increased in the past century from 47 to 77 years. But that’s measured from birth and is almost entirely because more people are living to become old, rather than older people living longer. But new biotechnology treatments will actually extend lifespan, far beyond the widely-accepted 120-year limit.

An approach that could literally reverse aging involves telomeres, tightly coiled threads of DNA that form a protective cap on the ends of each of our chromosomes. These telomeres shorten each time the cell divides until the cell cannot divide anymore. Then our bodies start to decline.

But scientists in lab studies have shown that by adding the enzyme telomerase to human cells, they could make them into little Energizer Bunnies. They just kept on dividing and dividing. Later they stunned the scientific community when they showed that telomerase restored the youth of aging human skin tissue that had been attached to the backs of mice.

Consider that as you celebrate your 100th birthday you could have skin that’s as smooth as the proverbial "baby’s behind," without the diaper rash. Moreover, not just skin but rather 85 percent of the cells in our bodies have telomeres.

Yet scientists are following many longevity paths, all of which seem to stave off not only death but decrepitude as well.

Italian researchers have created mice that lived a third longer than normal simply by turning off a single gene that appears to instruct cells to die.

Another route to the same end involves the well-documented phenomenon that creatures from worms to mammals live much longer if placed on a severely calorie-restricted diet. Presumably it would work in humans, but to what avail in a country where two-thirds of us are overweight? MIT professor Leonard Guarente, however, wants us to have our cake and live longer too. He’s discovered a gene called Sir2 that appears to keep in check many other genes that promote aging. But Sir2 also regulates metabolism, so overloading it with more than a bare minimum of calories keeps it from its anti-aging task.

Various methods tested in yeast, worms and fruit flies, however, have kept Sir2 going strong even in the face of a Wendy’s Classic Triple With Everything. One is to simply add in extra copies of Sir2. Another is to give the test creature a drug that decreases an enzyme that also hobbles Sir2. This made fruit flies live as much as 50 percent longer.

Sir2 is only in early animal testing, but as University of California-San Francisco biochemist Cynthia Kenyon said regarding genetic regulation of aging, if "it happens in both worms and fruit flies, you have to be crazy to think it won’t happen in vertebrates."

Don’t expect any of the anti-aging gene-related therapies to be marketed for a decade, but there may be something available now that could put off that date with the grim reaper.

A process called oxidation, in which loose electrons bouncing around our cells wreak havoc, promotes both aging and cancer. "In essence, we’re rusting," says prominent Berkeley biologist Bruce Ames. But does that mean that antioxidant supplements slow the process? No one can say for sure yet, but many studies have shown antioxidants to be effective in warding off diseases related to aging. One recent 16-month study of Parkinson’s patients revealed that those taking high doses of the antioxidant coenzyme Q-10 had an astounding 44 percent less decline in mental function, movement and ability to perform daily living tasks than the placebo group.

Ames himself has developed a supplement combining a powerful antioxidant plus an antioxidant promoter, sold under the brand name Juvenon. He concedes he doesn’t know yet how much it will help humans but it’s worked wonders in numerous rat tests. "They could get up and do the Macarena," Ames says.

Perhaps, though I’ve been taking Juvenon since it was introduced and still haven’t learned the Macarena. But based on the available studies I also take the antioxidants coenzyme Q-10, selenium, vitamin B-complex, and vitamins C and E.

None of these treatments will bring immortality. And personally I’d rather see a therapy that compels people to make better use of the life spans they have, rather than waste them watching "reality TV." But that choice will be yours, brought to you by biotech.