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Immortality, anyone? Anti-ageing drugs are set for human trials

Ranjan Crasta | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:49 IST

On some level, we're all afraid of dying. Some more than others, but all of us, regardless of how stoic we'd like to believe we may be, are afraid that one day we will just stop being. Lost to the pages of time, the memory of our peers and to those yet to come.

We've developed means of coping with it - from religion-taught afterlives to reincarnation to desperate attempts at leaving a legacy. But it's all ultimately futile because the thought of all of our life's experiences - our joys, sorrows, hopes, dreams, triumphs and failures - amounting to nothing is, quite frankly, terrifying.

But while some choose to ignore it, because they'd go mad otherwise, others are bothered enough by it to try and fight it.

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From the philosopher's stone of alchemy to Ponce de Leon's fountain of youth and the quest for the Holy Grail, mankind has always had a fascination with transcending our mortality. But while our own limitations have meant that this pursuit has remained more in the realms of fantasy than reality, scientific advancement means we're closer to cheating death than ever before.

The beginning of the fight against the end

Robert Ettinger kick started this pursuit.

Brought up on a heady diet of science fiction, Ettinger believed that by the time he was ready for a kickabout with the proverbial bucket, science would've found a way around death. After all, what was mortality but another challenge for science to overcome?

Unfortunately for Ettinger, while he pursued a career in physics, leaving the fight against mortality to others, precious little was done to overcome death. Realising that the grim reaper was fast creeping up on him, and that he needed to get things done himself, Ettinger began toying with the prospect of cryonics.

He figured that if, instead of being buried, he could be frozen until scientists figured out this death business, and perhaps he could then be brought back. In 1962, he published his seminal work The Prospect of Immortality, expounding his ideas and giving birth to the cryonic movement.

Ettinger's fight against death wasn't just restricted to ideas though. The man lived to the ripe old age of 92, even establishing a cryonic storage facility that was to be his final resting place. He still lies there, waiting.

But while Ettinger continues to chill, the fight against death has not ended. In fact, it's about to enter a brave new era. One full of possibility, but, at least as of now, just that.

What do we say to death? Not today

Just last year, an American start-up called BioViva claimed to have pioneered a world-first anti-ageing gene therapy. Using a combination of genetic therapies, BioViva CEO Elizabeth Parrish claimed the firm was able to reverse telomere shortening.

Telomeres are bits of DNA that cap the ends of chromosomes, protecting them from damage. With every cell division, these telomeres shorten, offering less and less protection to the chromosomes, leading to damage that causes them to age.

In September last year, Parrish underwent BioViva's treatment herself to prove its safety and efficacy. In April 2016, independent institutes verified that her telomeres had indeed lengthened thanks to the treatment.

Incredible, yes. But the scientific community was less than impressed because Parrish had sacrificed scientific rigour at the altar of immortality. The proper scientific testing and trials required were bypassed to fast track the treatment. In fact, Parrish had the treatment administered to her in Colombia to bypass American regulations.

This meant that while Parrish's telomeres may have lengthened, we still have no idea about the long-term effects of the treatment. Would it have any side-effects? Was it permanent? Was her case a one-off or a proper treatment? All of these questions mean that BioViva still has a long way to go before its methods are accepted for public use.

Thankfully, not everyone is trying to fast track immortality. And next month, the first science-backed anti-ageing drug, one discovered over three years ago and tested extensively on mice, will finally enter the stage of clinical testing on humans!

Of mice and men

In 2013, researchers at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Australia claimed to have pioneered a revolutionary anti-ageing treatment using a compound called nicotinamide mononucleotide (NMN).

Using NMN, researchers were able to target and stimulate a single ageing-related enzyme - SIRT1. SIRT1 is responsible for working on proteins that contribute to cellular regulation. Its functioning affects everything from eyesight to external appearance.

Unfortunately, stimulating it through natural means like exercise and diet can only do so much. For instance, a glass of red wine has SIRT1 stimulators, but they aren't strong enough in their naturally occurring state to do too much. What's worse, SIRT1's functioning grows weaker with age.

NMN however, is capable of doing far more. So far, trials in mice have shown that NMN treatments can reverse everything from declining eyesight, glucose tolerance and even metabolism, as well as improving external signs of ageing.

Now, Keio University in Japan, in collaboration with Washington University, will finally conduct trials on 10 healthy human subjects. The trials, which will be conducted in Japan, are set to take place as early as July, subject, of course, to approval from Keio University's Research Ethics Committee.

The trials will be conducted under the guidance of lead researcher Shinichiro Imai of Washington University. Imai has so far led research concerning NMN on mice, but is quietly confident this work will translate effectively to humans.

Speaking to the media, Imaid said, "We've confirmed a remarkable effect in the experiment using mice, but it's not clear yet how much [the compound] will affect humans. We'll carefully conduct the study, which I hope will result in important findings originating in Japan."

The decision to undertake the trials in Japan is a shrewd move, given the Japanese government's desperation to combat the problem of an ageing populace. By 2055, over 40% of Japan's citizens will be on the wrong side of 65. The Japanese government is already spending copious amounts of money on developing robot caregivers for the elderly and is set to fund anti-ageing research like Imai's, starting in 2017.

If Imai's research translates to an actual treatment, it could not only mean a solution to Japan's problems, but a brave new dawn for the rest of us mortals as well.

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First published: 26 June 2016, 9:12 IST
Ranjan Crasta @jah_crastafari

The Ranjan (Beardus Horribilis) is a largely land-dwelling herbivorous mammal. Originally from a far more tropical habitat, the Ranjan can now be found wandering the streets of Delhi complaining about the weather, looking for watering holes and foraging for affordable snacks. Mostly human, mostly happy and mostly harmless, the Ranjan is prone to mood swings when deprived of his morning coffee. Having recently migrated to the Catch offices, he now inhabits a shadowy corner and spends his time distracting people and producing video content to distract them further.