A cure for ageing

Eternal youth

A cure for ageing

At just 21, with all the mental acuity, smooth skin and robust good health that comes with her age, Laura Deming still has youth firmly on her side. But while most of her contemporaries are focused on drinking, dating and stumbling through a degree, Laura, who runs her own medical venture capital firm, is driving the development of a pill that could ‘cure’ ageing, and which she believes could be available to everyone within 10 years.

Sounds like the stuff of science fiction? Maybe, but Laura, a prodigy who was
accepted to the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) at the age of 14, is one of the leading researchers in a buzzing field that is very real indeed — and speaking to her, you quickly begin to believe as well. “There are drugs already out there on the market today that, we think, if you were to take them your whole life, would help you live longer and healthier,” she asserts. “But we need clinical trials to prove it.”

Laura is one of the scientist stars of a new documentary, The Age of Ageing, which shows that the availability of drugs that slow down and prevent ageing is closer than many of us may think. The film also features the case study of Martha Kamin, a former nurse, who has survived breast cancer and endured five hip surgeries, and with a narrowed aortic valve, is now at risk of a heart attack; precisely the type of person who those
advances could help.

This summer, the first-ever clinical trial to investigate the anti-ageing possibilities of one particular drug was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration. Led by Nir Barzilai of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, a team of scientists will give Metformin – a drug currently used to treat type 2 diabetes, and which has also been proven to extend the lifespan of mice — to 3,000 elderly people at high risk from age-related diseases like cancer, heart disease and dementia. The five to seven-year trial will attempt to discover whether it also helps prevent the onset of such diseases and extend the lifespan of humans.

There is little dissent in the science community that we are living longer than ever; it’s widely accepted that the first person who will live to be 135-years-old has already been born. However, there is also a relatively new feeling in the scientific community that everything we associate with ageing – a decline into poor physical and mental health and diseases such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, dementia — is not inevitable or ‘natural’ at all.

“There has long been this notion that it is not possible to stop ageing,” says Brian Kennedy, president of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in California. “But cancer is ‘natural’ too; it happens to a third of the population. And so is Alzheimer’s. And yet we do everything we can to try and prevent them, so why not take the biggest risk factor for all of these diseases — ageing — and try to tackle that as a means to get at all of these diseases at the same time?” That is certainly Laura’s ambition.

Self-made

Chatty, articulate and attractive, she seems incredibly well-adjusted for one so prodigious. She’d long been ‘obsessed’ with the science of ageing, she says, and by the age of 12, had begun helping researchers at the University of California San Francisco in her spare time. She and her younger brother never attended mainstream school, but instead home-schooled themselves. “I taught myself calculus and probability and statistics, and French literature and history. I gave myself my own grades; I probably have some gaps in my knowledge though,” she says.

Whatever gaps she may have were certainly no bar to her being accepted to MIT, where she studied biology and physics. However, at 16, she dropped out to set up her own venture capital firm, The Longevity Fund, to finance research into developing commercially viable drugs to combat ageing.

“The traditional way of doing things didn’t really make sense to me,” she says. Her fund’s portfolio includes a research company working on Rapamycin, a drug currently used to prevent organ rejection after transplants, but which has been shown to extend the lifespan of mice by up to 30 per cent. Scientists believe it may be related to the way it affects the nutrients available in the body: counterintuitively, restricting calories and fasting have been found to increase lifespan by making your cells more resistant to stress.

Also being investigated by one of the fund’s companies is the possibility of deleting all the old cells from your body. This, believe it or not, is entirely possible: only a small portion of your cells get old — less than one per cent in some cases. “You’d think your body might collapse if you delete cells, but if you delete just the old cells in mice, they live 30 per cent longer. The most important ideas are often the ones that are counterintuitive,” Laura says.

One trial has had success in reversing ageing in old mice by injecting them with the blood of young mice; now, they are replicating this in human trials, directly injecting Alzheimer’s patients with blood taken from healthy young people.

But not everyone is on board. “There is no single pill against ageing. And there never will be,’ argues Rudi Westendorp, professor of old age medicine at the University of Copenhagen, and author of the new book Growing Older Without Feeling Old. one of the world’s leading experts on ageing, Rudi does not mince his words on the matter. “The public want easy solutions, and scientists want to cure everything with one single drug. Forget about it.” He believes that rather than turning to pharmaceutical solutions, we need a mindset shift in the way we think about ageing: we need to start thinking positively, and see that longer lives are a gift. He also argues that we need to rethink our lifestyles.

Laura does not deny that there are simple things we can do to help slow down the ageing process – and cutting out sugar comes top of the list. “We don’t really know why sugar is so incredibly bad for you,” she says. “But we do know that every single time we give any organism sugar, it reduces its lifespan. And every time we decrease blood sugar levels, an organism lives longer.”

Does she practise what she preaches, then? “When you are in your developmental phase, none of this really matters,” she says, a little sheepishly. “It’s only when you reach full maturity that it really kicks in. So I’ve been kidding myself that I’m still in my developmental phase – and I can still eat all the sugar I want.’


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