120 is the new 70: the journey to uncovering the fountain of youth

Some believe ageing is a medical problem that can be solved. Photo: Pixabay

The phrase ‘30 is the new 20’ is a laughable thought in the field of biotechnology, where researchers are working to extend the human lifespan and make 120 the new 70.

With scientists and technologists speeding to hack the code of life on one side, there are others who are working to find an over-the-counter cure for all fatal diseases to maximise human life expectancy.

The race to buy humans time to live longer and do more is on.

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Where we began

The 1950s and 60s were marked by the Space Race. Then came the 70s, and with it emerged the dawn of the information age. Again, humans went on to create a future that very few foresaw. With the advent of computers, the internet and, subsequently, smartphones, the world became a global village in a short period of time. Now, we are once again in what looks like the cusp of change — this time, in the field of biotechnology.

Back in 2009, the most-celebrated futurist of our time, Ray Kurweil, while speaking to biologists and geneticists at a Longevity Summit, said, “We are very close to the tipping point in human longevity… we are about 15 years away from adding more than one year of longevity per year to remaining life expectancy.” The technologist, who holds a track record for predicting with accuracy the emergence of future technologies, seems to be right once again.

As Silicon Valley billionaires line up to pour their money into the next big technological trend — to expand human lifespan — the bullish rise in the number of biotechnology companies working on this space is a good indicator of what is set to define the next few decades.

The 21st century is seeing a surge in the average life expectancy across the globe. Developed nations already boast an average expectancy of 75-85 years, with developing nations averaging at 65. In comparison, life expectancy in the 20th century was below 50 years. The reason for the sudden surge is attributed to the large strides made in the field of medicine and biotechnology, with new drugs able to combat diseases once considered deadly.

A decade ago, innovations in the medical front projected that the average human life expectancy will rise globally to 90 years by 2050. However, this was before the renewed interest in prolonging human life took hold of Silicon Valley. With billions of dollars now pouring into this new frontier, it looks like we may surpass this average within the next decade, and push the envelope of lifespan to an average of 120 years by 2050.

Leading the way

Adding to the already rapid progress are people like Dr Joon Yun, a physician and hedge fund manager, and Peter Diamandis, the celebrated serial entrepreneur and founder of the X Prize Foundation, which announced a million dollar cash prize for anyone who can “hack the code of life.”

Statistically speaking, scientists believe that eventually human beings can live up to 1,000 years, that is, if science finds a way of keeping the risk of age-related disease well under 0.1%.

Taking the first step forward to achieving this dream was Google. The company started Calico (California Life Company) in 2013, investing over a billion dollars on a quest to creating age-defying drugs — in other words, the fountain of youth. Their mission is to harness advanced technologies and reverse engineer the biology that controls ageing and find ways to intervene to enable humans to live longer and healthier lives.

Human Longevity Inc, co-founded by American biologist and technologist Craig Venter, Diamandis, and billionaire Dr Robert Hariri, is looking to catalogue 1 million human genome sequences by 2020, including that of supercentenarians, to find patterns that make up for a long, healthy life. Venter believes that the database will become the reference centre for all companies working on the same goal.

Aubrey de Grey, a molecular biologist who has been crusading for over two decades for the world to embark on a quest to eliminate ageing, sees no reason why human beings shouldn’t live to be 1,000. The co-founder of Sens (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence) Foundation, a non-profit organisation based in the US, believes that physical deterioration that comes with age can be stopped. The reality is, he says, that ageing is simply a “medical problem” that science can easily solve in time.

According to de Grey, accepting ageing as unavoidable had been the biggest hurdle in trying to mobilise more research in this field. “Just as a vintage car can be kept in good condition indefinitely, with periodic preventative maintenance, so can a human body,” says de Grey. We are, after all, biological machines, he reasons.

Commercial market for eliminating diseases

Stem cells retrieved from human placenta are the answer to curing cancer. These revelations made Hariri the man of the hour. The pioneering research by his team at Celgene Cellular Therapeutics to use stem cells to treat a range of life threatening diseases is not only a ground-breaking solution to combating death and ageing, but also holds the answers to regulating vitality in our body.

Hariri believes that the reality of the coming decades is that over-the-counter drugs to cure cancer will be readily available, just like the ones for a common cold. Medicine and technology are coming together to pave the way for a new era in biotechnological innovation.

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