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More on Longevity Research

The cover story of this month's issue of Scientific American, "Unlocking the Secrets of Longevity Genes", is co-authored by David Sinclair and Lenny Guarente. Both have started pharmaceuticals (Sirtis and Elixir, respectively) and both are professors, Sinclair at Harvard and Guarente at MIT. I mentioned Sinclair in an earlier blog entry.

If there's one thing that's clear from the recent news in longevity research, it's that it has gone mainstream. Researchers are making breakthroughs, founding firms, attracting capital, and writing for major magazines.

Sinclair and Guarente seem optimistic but not wild-eyed:

Both our labs are running carefully controlled mouse experiments that should soon tell us whether the SIRT1 gene controls health and life span in a mammal. We will not know definitively how Sirtuin genes affect human longevity for decades. Those who are hoping to pop a pill and live to 130 may have therefore been born a bit too early. Nevertheless, those of us already alive could live to see medications that modulate the activity of Sirtuin enzymes employed to treat specific conditions such as Alzheimer's, cancer, diabetes and heart disease. In fact, several such drugs have begun clinical trials for treatment of diabetes, herpes and neurodegenerative diseases.

And in the longer term, we expect that unlocking the secrets of longevity genes will allow society to go beyond treating illnesses associated with aging and prevent them from arising in the first place. It may seem hard to imagine what life will be like when people are able to feel youthful and live relatively free of today's diseases well into their 90s. Some may wonder whether tinkering with human life span is even a good idea. But at the beginning of the 20th century, life expectancy at birth was around 45 years. It has risen to about 75 thanks to the advent of antibiotics and public health measures that allow people to survive or avoid infectious diseases. Society adapted to that dramatic change in average longevity, and few people would want to return to life without those advances. No doubt, future generations accustomed to living past 100 will also look back at our current approaches to improving health as primitive relics of a bygone era.

There's a less technical, broader round-up of longevity research, "The Aging Enigma", in a recent issue of Harvard magazine, in which Sinclair has a slightly differently-nuanced view:

David Sinclair... does not rule out changes to the human maximum, although he believes that “We are not going to see any super-long-lived people in our lifetimes.” Progress against age-related disease could add five to 10 years on average to human life span. “Who wouldn’t be happy,” he asks, “with an extra five years?”

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