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Quest for the fountain of youth

The first man or woman who could live to be 150 may well be reading this. Longevity — for long a favourite subject of science fiction writers — is knocking on our doors. And since the frontiers of cutting edge tech are often the fantastical sci-fi pages, it’s not surprising that the claim should be made by Professor Gregory Benford, an award winning sci-fi writer and professor of physics and astronomy at the University of California, Irvine.

Benford’s California-based company Genescient is hot on the pursuit of the elixir of life: through a gene formula.

And it’s happening in our own backyards. Genescient’s first longevity product — to be ready for human trials later this year — will be tested at a laboratory in Bangalore. Genescient’s patent advisor also is an Indian.

The company uses directed evolution techniques — molecular biology methods that mimic natural evolution in laboratory conditions — to produce long-lived animals. The genomics of these animals are used to find critical pathways to longevity. “Using those, we find substances, some from traditional Indian medicine, interestingly, to devise pills to enhance the longevity pathways we already have. Those are our first products — arrived at by further testing on animals, to be sure they work and have no bad side effects,” he says.

Benford, one of the large fraternity seeking to expand human lifespan and enhance maturing years, was a panellist at a session on longevity at a conference on the big innovation trends held in November 2008. A co-panellist, anti-ageing expert Terry Grossman, announced to a full hall that the face-off was between ageing, a disease, and growing older as a natural process. “Ageing is not a natural disease. It’s possible to grow older without ageing,” Grossman, also a naturopath and homoeopath, maintained.

In India, too, there has been some sporadic yet commendable research. Madhu Sudan Kanungo, an emeritus professor at Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi, and Kalluri Subba Rao, now with Jawaharlal Nehru Technical University, Hyderabad, have been studying ageing from the seventies.

Much before the advent of sophisticated techniques, Kanungo’s team discovered how the production of certain critical proteins by genes begins to fall in the thirties. They have found that by arresting the decline of many of these proteins, vital for the functioning of the brain and maintaining hormone levels, lifespans can be extended.

Rao’s studies, which started nearly 35 years ago, underline how diminished DNA repair in the brain is linked to ageing. Unlike most other cells in the body, brain cells don’t undergo any division to create new ones. So repair is the only way to maintain a healthy brain, says he.

Hundreds of companies and one-person armies are engaged in the mission of searching for longevity and life enhancing solutions. Three years ago Stanford University started its own Longevity Centre “to improve the course of human ageing,” exploring the gamut from policy to commercial solutions. It isn’t just about cosmetic enhancement but disease prevention through active intervention.

Undeniably, lifespans have increased. According to data from the United Nations, the Japanese and Icelanders top the list of life expectancy with an average of 82 years. In contrast, Swaziland is 40 per cent below the world average with just 39 years.

India’s average life expectancy is 64.7 years but there is one community that outlives most others: Parsis, who live well into their 80s.

Their longevity with comparative mobility (with also a preponderance of ailments such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s) is the subject of a gene study that aims to break their secret of long life.

Avesthagen, a Bangalore-based biotech company, in partnership with some international companies, is studying the gene pool of the Parsis in its project Avestagenome. One aim is to find the molecular basis for longevity, says Dr Sami N. Guzder, head of the science and innovation division at Avesthagen.

“We are looking for biomarkers that could be used for diagnostics. Not everyone may have those distinct biomarkers,” he says. New biomarkers are constantly being discovered. But, Guzder cautions, the research is still in its early days — at least five years before any findings are put out for peer review.

Elsewhere too, companies are busy digging into the secrets of longevity.

Sirtris Pharmaceuticals, a part of GlaxoSmithKline now, exploits sirtuin enzymes believed to be connected to the ageing process. Resveratrol, found abundantly in red wine, is another example of a much-in-demand, commercially sold, naturally produced plant antibiotic that is said to have anti-ageing properties.

Benford’s company bought Methuselah fruit flies, which through selective breeding over 28 years resulted in a lifespan 4.5 times longer than normal. The fruit flies were created by evolutionary biologist Michael Rose who through lab work brought about mutation in their genes, causing them to live 35 per cent longer than the average fly. Flies have 75 per cent genes in common with humans.

Given the medical and scientific research there is no reason one shouldn’t live till 1,000 years, said another of the November conference speakers, Aubrey de Grey. He is chairman of the Methuselah Foundation, UK, which gives the Mprize for scientific research to produce the longest living mice. And Methuselah, as the Biblical story goes, lived for 969 years.

Some believe that immortality is round the corner. Grossman has co-authored a book called Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever with futurist Ray Kurzweil, on how medical advances, biotechnology and nanotechnology will deliver radical life extension, and within decades, discover immortality. Kurzweil, 60, takes 250 supplements a day and Grossman, 61, about 60. The idea is to be ready by the time artificial intelligence and nanotechnology deliver the holy grail of sweeping longevity.

“Thwarting ageing is a broad issue, beyond conventional medicine. Supplements to enhance our pathways that let some live longer are the crucial frontier,” says Benford, still youthful in his sixties.

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