FREEDOM AND SAFETY
Recent research on longevity is making the idea of an elixir of life sound increasingly plausible. But a startup that’s started selling a $1 million anti-aging treatment is most likely jumping the gun.
Libella Gene Therapeutics says it will administer volunteers with a gene therapy that it claims can reverse aging by up to 20 years, according to OneZero. Despite the fact that this is the first human trial of the treatment, the company is charging volunteers $1m to take part. In an effort to side-step the FDA, the trial will take place in Colombia.
The therapy will attempt to repair people’s telomeres, the caps on the end of our chromosomes that shorten as people get older. It’s long been thought that they play a role in aging, and efforts to extend telomeres in mice have shown that it can delay the signs of getting older and increase healthy lifespan, though it’s yet to be tested in humans.
Libella’s therapy will use viruses to deliver a gene called TERT, which codes for an enzyme called telomerase that re-builds teleomeres, to the patients’ cells.
Experts told MIT Tech Review that the trial is unethical, poorly designed, and presents serious risks to participants, including the danger of activating dormant cancerous cells. But it’s also still unclear whether the trial will go ahead, because the company has made previous announcements before without following through.
Whether or not it does, though, medical treatments to head off the slow march towards death are likely to become increasingly common. A growing body of research suggests that aging is an entirely preventable condition and that there may be a variety of ways to treat it, from lifestyle changes to dramatic genetic interventions.
In 2017, scientists showed that using drugs to reprogram epigenetic markers - chemical attachments responsible for regulating the genome - in mice extended their lifespan by 30 percent. And in 2018, another team showed that using a combination of drugs to kill senescent cells - zombie cells that leak harmful chemicals, damaging nearby tissue - could boost the longevity of mice by 36 percent.
Famous geneticist George Church has even launched a startup called Rejuvenate Bio that will use proprietary genetic treatments to prolong the lives of dogs, though he has admitted the ultimate goal is to extend its technology to humans. Last month Church’s group at Harvard also showed that using gene therapies to tackle three age-related diseases at once was effective in mice.
The first anti-aging treatments for people are already starting to appear as well. CEO of longevity company BioViva Elizabeth Parrish injected herself with a gene therapy similar to Libella’s back in 2015, and the company has claimed it was successful in lengthening her telomeres, though results were never published.
Earlier this year a study on humans found that a cocktail of drugs could reset the epigenetic clock, epigenetic markers used to measure a person’s biological age. The participants also showed signs of a rejuvenated immune system.
And more controversially, the FDA recently had to put out a public service announcement telling people to stop injecting blood plasma from younger people. The idea is built upon recent research that showed a rejuvenating effect in mice, but most experts say it’s far too early to apply it to humans.
Whether the FDA will be able to keep on top of this burgeoning and highly lucrative market remains to be seen, but given the potential side effects of many of these treatments, it should be a priority.
We also need to have a more in-depth conversation about what these longevity therapies mean for society. Assuming this new trial is effective, what does it mean if only those with $1m to spare get to extend their lives? If treating aging becomes trivial, how is that going to change the nature of our communities? These are questions that may become increasingly relevant in the coming decades.