Monday 27th October 2014
The Buck Institute
* For millennia life expectancy was short. The typical person was fortunate to reach 40.
* Beginning in the 19th century, that slowly changed. In 1840, life expectancy at birth in Sweden was 45 years for women; today it’s 83 years.
* When the 20th century began, life expectancy at birth in America was 47 years; now newborns are expected to live 79 years.
Projections of ever-longer life spans assume no incredible medical discoveries—rather, that the escalator ride simply continues. If anti-aging drugs or genetic therapies are found, the climb could accelerate. Centenarians may become the norm, rather than rarities who generate a headline in the local newspaper.
Pie in the sky? On a verdant hillside in Marin County, California—home to hipsters and towering redwoods, the place to which the Golden Gate Bridge leads—sits the Buck Institute, the first private, independent research facility dedicated to extending the human life span. Since 1999, scientists and postdocs there have studied ways to make organisms live much longer, and with better health, than they naturally would. Already, the institute’s researchers have quintupled the life span of laboratory worms. Most Americans have never heard of the Buck Institute, but someday this place may be very well known.
Society might learn the answer to an ancient mystery: Given that every cell in a mammal’s body contains the DNA blueprint of a healthy young version of itself, why do we age at all?
“Here in our freezers we have 100 or so compounds that extend life in invertebrates,” says Gordon Lithgow, a geneticist at the Buck Institute. He walks with me through labs situated on a campus of modernistic buildings that command a dreamlike view of San Pablo Bay, and encourage dreamlike thoughts. The 100 compounds in the freezer? “What we don’t know is if they work in people.”
The Buck Institute bustles with young researchers. Jeans and San Francisco 49ers caps are common sights—this could be a Silicon Valley software start-up were not microscopes, cages, and biological-isolation chambers ubiquitous. The institute is named for Leonard and Beryl Buck, a Marin County couple who left oil stocks to a foundation charged with studying why people age, among other issues. When the institute opened, medical research aimed at slowing aging was viewed as quixotic—the sort of thing washed-up hippies talk about while sipping wine and watching the sunset. A mere 15 years into its existence, the Buck Institute is at the bow wave of biology.
In one lab, researchers laboriously tamper with yeast chromosomes. Yeast is expedient as a research subject because it lives out a lifetime before an analyst’s eyes, and because a third of yeast genes are similar to human genes. Deleting some genes kills yeast; deleting others causes yeast to live longer. Why deleting some genes extends life isn’t known—Buck researchers are trying to figure this out, in the hope that they might then carry the effect over to mammals. The work is painstaking, with four microscopes in use at least 50 hours a week.
Researchers curious about aging mainly work with mice, worms, flies, and yeast, because they are small and easily housed, and because they don’t live long, so improvements to life expectancy are quickly observable. “Twenty years ago it was a really big deal to extend the life span of worms. Now any postdoc can do that,” says Simon Melov, a Buck geneticist. Experiments funded by the National Institute on Aging have shown that drugs can extend a mouse’s life span by about a quarter, and Buck researchers have been able to reverse age-related heart dysfunction in the same animal. Think how the world would be upended if human longevity quickly jumped another 25 percent.
The rubber will meet the road with human trials. “We hope to find five to 10 small molecules that extend healthy life span in mice, then stage a human trial,” says Brian Kennedy, the Buck Institute’s CEO. A drug called rapamycin—being tested at the institute and elsewhere—seems closest to trial stage and has revolutionary potential. – Gregg Easterbrook
Sunday 18th January 2015
Scientists Say They’ll Soon Extend Lifespan Past 120
Fixing the ‘problem’ of ageing is the mission of Silicon Valley, where billions is pouring into biotech firms working to ‘hack the code’ of life
Scientists have already successfully intervened in ageing in a variety of animal species and researchers say there is reason to believe it could be achieved in people. “We have really turned a corner,” says Brian Kennedy, director of the Buck Institute for Research on Ageing, adding that five years ago the scientific consensus was that ageing research was interesting but unlikely to lead to anything practical. “We’re now at the point where it’s easy to extend the lifespan of a mouse. That’s not the question any more, it’s can we do this in humans? And I don’t see any reason why we can’t,” says David Sinclair, a researcher based at Harvard. – Zoe Corbyn