Today, advances in biotechnology and its applications in the field of healthcare have extended human life to lengths that would have been unheard of only 100 years ago. But as we’ve seen throughout the coronavirus pandemic, many of the advances are geared toward fighting off various diseases that often prove fatal to humans. That’s one of the reasons that the mRNA technology that powers the latest COVID-19 vaccines came to be – as it is meant to facilitate passing protein-building instructions to our cells.
But the fact is, even someone who manages to avoid disease will still succumb eventually to the simple ravages of old age. That’s because every cell in our bodies is aging as we are, and no amount of dietary changes or exercise can stop it. This means that humans do have a natural limit on their lifespans, even if they do everything right to prolong them.
But what if there were a way to delay the process of cellular decay – or even bring it to a halt?
It’s a goal that sounds like something straight out of a science fiction novel. But a recent research report out of the Institute of Zoology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) might be a sign that it’s coming ever close to becoming a reality.
Gene Therapy to Delay Aging
The team of scientists involved in the research, led by Professor Qu Jing, made use of the Nobel Prize-winning CRISPR gene-editing tool to make some subtle changes to a specific gene in the livers of mice (which have an analog in all human cells). The gene, known as kat7, plays a key role in instructing living cells to continue through their normal aging process.
The scientists used a method called the CRISPR/Cas9 method to screen thousands of genes to isolate kat7 as a driver of cellular aging. With that knowledge in hand, they were able to modify the gene to make it inactive, and reintroduce it to the live mice through a lentiviral vector. Then, they monitored the mice to see what the effect would be.
And the results were astounding. After the genetic therapy, the mice exhibited unmistakable signs of a beneficial change. These included an improved appearance after six to eight months of observation, improved grip strength, and an extended lifespan of about 25%. In other words – they appeared to remain younger for longer.
Making the Jump to Humans
According to the researchers, it’s far too early to be considering applying the technique in humans. But they did conduct toxicology studies in human stem cells, mesenchymal progenitor cells, and human liver cells, which uncovered no evidence of any toxicity. That means the treatment shouldn’t be dangerous for humans, although the efficacy is still unknown.
To make that leap, scientists will have to conduct far more extensive studies of the gene’s effect on other types of human cells and will need more comprehensive animal study data to examine. The good news is that many of the human cell tests don’t take much work to execute. They could be done in any modern laboratory setting.
The tests would involve using the CRISPR/Cas9 editing technique on sample human cells, and then validating them with PCR testing methods using BMG Labtech microplate readers or similar equipment. Afterward, cell cultures including the edited genes might yield clues as to the potential toxicity and effects on a broader cross-section of human cells.
What Comes Next
The researchers involved in the CAS study have indicated that the next logical step in their work would be to apply their technique in primates to see if it might be effective in humans’ closest genetic relatives. But they will require a large amount of funding to complete such work, which they’re not yet sure will be made available to them.
In the meantime, the idea of using gene therapy in humans to delay aging is progressing on other fronts. In another study being conducted by the Salk Institute, researchers are using a similar gene-editing technique to try and halt the progression of Hutchinson-Gilford progeria syndrome in mice. It’s a rare genetic disorder that also affects humans, which causes sufferers to show signs of rapid aging from the moment of birth.
That study is expected to move at a faster pace toward human trials and research because it targets a specific disease, as opposed to aging in general. But because of the similarities between the two studies, it’s possible that the results of the Salk Institute research will point the way forward for similar treatments in humans, including the modification of kat7 as specified in the CAS experiments.
The Bottom Line
It’s easy to see the early results of these research studies and start to imagine a world where humans might routinely live to be 125 years old or more. And if the studies turned into similar treatments for humans, that’s about how big of an impact on life expectancy they would have. But to temper that excitement, it’s important to realize that early clinical research rarely, if ever, translates directly to real-world health breakthroughs.
And even if that were to happen, the healthcare industry would still have to wrestle with the myriad maladies that now contribute to premature death in humans. After all, people in advanced countries like the US don’t often die of old age and nothing else. In fact, only 0.0173% of Americans live to be 100 right now, despite all of the miraculous advances modern medicine has already made.
So, while the idea of a breakthrough gene therapy that could extend human life is no longer confined to the pages of science fiction novels, it’s also not going to be the panacea people expect. It’s going to have to be a single, albeit critical, piece of medical science that creates the path to extended human longevity. For most of us, that means it’s not a breakthrough we can expect to see in our lifetimes. But it’s certainly something that our grandchildren or great-grandchildren might one day see as a routine part of their healthcare.