A New York woman, Susannah Jones, died last week at the age of 116. She was considered to be the oldest person living in the world. With her passing, a 116 year old woman in Italy is now the oldest person and she is thought to be the last person living who was born in the 19th century in 1899.
If geroscientists succeed, these two women living at their age would be common place sometime in this century. The New York Times ran another long article on Tuesday in its occasional series called, “Chasing Immortality.” The article discussed research by “geroscientists” – those who are studying aging and how to extend lifespan and longevity – that is moving ahead on dogs now following previous studies on mice. The article noted that Google started a company called Calico in 2013 to defeat aging. It also noted that “some scientists want the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to recognize aging as a disease for which a drug can be marketed which they hope will draw more interest from pharmaceutical firms.”
The FDA recently gave approval for a drug trial for the diabetes drug Metformin to see if it can delay age-related diseases. The geroscientists believe that if they can focus on genes that cause the body to age and break down rather than just focus on specific diseases like cancer, they can help delay cancer and many other diseases for which aging is the leading risk factor.
Getting research dollars though is a problem in this field. Many people scoff at extending the lifespan, saying dying is inevitable. Others are adamantly opposed because of concerns about overpopulation. Others say it will be difficult to subject people to drug trials if they are not sick but just trying to see if certain drugs make them live longer. Some of the trials could have negative results for healthy people and they may have their lives cut short if the drug doesn’t work for them.
And then others like Bill Gates, the billionaire philanthropist don’t consider this research a high priority. He is quoted saying “It seems pretty egocentric while we still have malaria and TB for rich people to fund things so they can live longer.”
The researchers though believe that humans and animals don’t all have to see their bodies break down and that the issue is about extending life which is already happening anyway with advances in certain drugs right now. They note that some animals live longer than others and the issue is about finding the biological factors that cause bodies to age.
It will be interesting to watch this unfolds. It may be too late for many of us before a significant drug is developed that can extend our lives by decades but even advances in some current drugs are keeping people alive who would have died just a decade ago. The most promising are cancer drugs which use a person’s immune system to fight the cancer cells. President Jimmy Carter may be the best known example. He was diagnosed with a usually terminal type of melanoma cancer. He was given a drug, keytruda, that used his immunity that has put his cancer into remission even at his age of 91. 40% of the people taking the drug are still living after three years.