In the early years of the Soviet Union, in the 1920s, the Bolshevik Alexander Bogdanov began to experiment with blood transfusions as a method of curing aging. After surviving the dangers of the Russian Revolution and having undergone 10 blood transfusions in two years, in 1928, he succumbed to the eleventh. The donor had malaria and tuberculosis. Many decades later, in 2015, Elizabeth Parrish, the director of a company called BioViva, traveled to Colombia to evade the authorities that regulate the use of medical treatments in the United States and apply an anti-aging gene therapy. Although her approach has not received the approval of the scientific community, Parrish lives on.
Eternal youth is a prize that has led scientists and adventurers to take exceptional risks. Right now, there are individuals who apply anti-aging treatments outside the official channels to escape the ravages of time. Some drugs, such as rapamycin, which is used to prevent organ rejection in transplants, or metformin, which is taken by many people with diabetes, have shown anti-aging potential in animals and are beginning to be tested in humans with that objective.
The study of some animals, such as the jellyfish Turritopsis, which is capable of reversing its own aging and returning, in some way, to its childhood, suggests that getting old is not a foregone fate. Indeed, many prestigious scientists believe that we are getting closer to obtaining answers about how to live beyond our current limits. Nicklas Brendborg, a 27-year-old molecular biologist at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, has just published the book The Immortal Jellyfish, in which he compiles the latest findings on humanity’s long-standing quest for longevity. He spoke with EL PAÍS this week by videoconference.
Question. How much time could a person gain by following the advice in your book?
Answer. It depends on who you are. With some people, it is very easy to give them advice that prolongs their life: stop smoking, lose some weight... But there are people who are already really, really healthy. There you have to go to the tiny details, to take a supplement or to focus more on flossing. In the last hundred years, great increases in life expectancy have been achieved, but now it seems that we have reached a limit, at least for people who do not smoke, do not drink, eat in moderation and exercise, which in any case is not an easy combination to achieve.
Even if you follow all the health rules and do exactly as you’re told to do this, you are still going to age, and you are still going to get an age-related disease and die. If we really want to live a long life, if we want to live as long as the Greenland shark [which can live up to 500 years], then we’re going to need some medical interference.
Q. Compounds such as rapamycin or metformin are now being tested, and there are also experiments with stem cells. Do you think that these solutions will overcome the experimental phases and reach the market in 20 years?
A. I think it will only take five years for the first products to hit the market. You’re right that metformin and rapamycin are good candidates, and both are, as we speak, being tested in humans. The potential of these molecules is something that we have known about for a long time in mice and now, we are finally getting to see what is the verdict in humans. That will be a first generation, with these drugs that have already been approved for use in humans. But then you also could have a second generation of new stuff that is coming along in clinical trials. I predict that we’re going to see these things hitting the market within the next five to 10 years if we’re going to be pessimistic.
It shouldn’t be impossible to extend human lifespan to 200 or 300 years
Q. Do you think that these products, like advanced treatments for rare diseases or cancer, will be very effective, but with prohibitive prices, meaning they will only reach a select few?
A. It depends completely on what therapy we’re talking about, because some of the ideas are traditional small molecules, which shouldn’t be that expensive. Some of the ideas are extensive cell-based therapies that are probably going to cost a fortune in the beginning. But usually medicine goes through a phase where it starts out very expensive, and then it gets cheaper and cheaper and cheaper as we figure out how to mass produce it, how to find cheaper ways to produce it, find cheaper alternatives that do the same thing. As soon as we have indication that something works, then the race will be on to lower the price, especially if we can see if it increases lifespan. The bounty for figuring this out would be tremendous, so a lot of people would join in the race.
Q. The world’s leading enterprises have shown much interest in the science of delaying aging. Altos Lab, for example, has raised $3 billion to get started and to hire some of the best scientists in the world. Do you think it is possible that we will see a dystopian future in which a thousand billionaires live hundreds of years, while the rest of the population has a life expectancy similar to the current one?
A. It shouldn’t be impossible to, for instance, extend human lifespan to 200 or 300 years, something like that. And of course, as with anything else, if it starts out expensive, rich people are going to have it. But a lot of scientists would probably want to have this for themselves. And many activists. I don’t expect it to be something that rich people invent and then keep for themselves, that would be totally unstable. If it’s expensive in the beginning, there is going to be an absolute race to lower the price and find alternatives so that everyone can get it. I think that’s also what you see with technology in general. The stuff that the common person has today is stuff that even kings couldn’t get 100 years ago.
Q. What is the easiest thing you can do right now to prolong your life?
A. The stuff that’s easy to do is often also what doesn’t work as well as the stuff that’s difficult, such as working out and eating healthy. But keeping your mouth clean is one of the easiest things you can do to extend your life. Because we can see these weird correlations between pathogens of the mouth and then the development of cardiovascular diseases and dementia. It is pretty easy to prevent these bacterial infections by removing the food in which they breed from the mouth. So if you remove the food, you decrease the likelihood that you have an overgrowth of these bacteria. People who get inflammatory conditions of the mouth have an increased risk of getting blood clots, getting dementia, of dying early. These risks can be avoided by cleaning two to three minutes a day. Just keep your mouth clean. Remember to brush your teeth and use dental floss. Being a blood donor could also have a beneficial effect.
Q. Being small is also a favorable factor when it comes to living longer. Why?
A. There are two things that could be an explanation. And the first one is quite simply that when you are a larger person, you have more cells. So if we assume that every cell can become a cancer cell, then when you have more cells, you have a slightly higher risk of getting cancer. And we do see that larger people have a slightly increased risk of getting cancer. That’s probably not most of the story. Most of the story is probably due to growth signaling, which makes you larger, but it also makes you age faster, because when there is more growth signaling in your body, you have a decrease in repair. It seems that the body either focuses on growth or focuses on repair.
Q. When looking for the keys to eternal life from a scientific point of view, one usually looks at places where there is great longevity, such as Okinawa in Japan or Nicoya in Costa Rica. Researchers then dissect the characteristics of the way of life, what the population eats or what they do, and try to encapsulate those characteristics. But often longevity is the result of a holistic lifestyle, where food, places, ways of socializing and other factors come together.
A. I’ve thought about that quite a lot because it is true that there’s a very tight connection between your physical health and your mental health and vice versa. The placebo effect, that thinking something has a medical effect, makes it so, but also the nocebo effect, which is just the opposite. This is a problem with food because you can end up harming yourself more from feeling guilty and stressed that you didn’t follow your diet, that from the actual physical effect it has on your body. So that’s definitely something that you need to be aware of.
Q. During the 20th century, there was an enormous rise in life expectancy, but in recent years it seems that the trend has slowed down and there are countries like the US where life expectancy has decreased. Have we reached the limit?
A. I think there are signs all around that the United States is not a healthy society at the moment. They have a big problem with guns, with drug addictions and the obesity epidemic, and now their life expectancy is falling. I don’t necessarily think that it is going to spread to the rest of the world. So far we’ve seen gradual increase in life expectancy in all countries, because we’re still making improvements in the way we live and in medicine. Then the big hope is, can we then build on top of that natural increase by coming up with anti-aging drugs? And that’s where it becomes more hypothetical, but I really hope that it will become more exponential and we can have people that are alive today dying at 100 years or 150 years of age.