“I am young. I am joy. I am freedom! “
Peter Pan’s line to the Hook in the classic “Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Won’t Grow Up” affirms youth as a major marker of identity. In less than ten words, JM Barrie equates youth with joy and freedom. And this obsession with youth can be seen everywhere. Our books, TV shows, and conversations are filled with concerns about aging and ways to fully experience youth.
This hope of longevity is nothing new or unnatural to humans, but it seems that the longer we live, the more crowded we are in our youth. Countries with an aging population are looking for solutions to prevent aging, but there is something new in our approach to the problem of aging – the advancement of genetic technologies.
We are no longer looking for mystical sources of youth
The tool that has been developed over the last decade to decode aging is the epigenetic clock. These watches evaluate biomarkers in your body to identify your chronological and biological age. The biological age is different from your chronological age; instead of revealing the number of years you have lived, it refers to how old you look. The latter can be influenced by environmental factors such as diet, exercise, stress, smoking and drinking, which leads to physiological aging of people at different rates.
A little less than five miles from where JM Barrie wrote Peter Pan’s first play, researchers are working on ways to achieve longevity, like the fictional character. The UCL Cancer Institute contributes to many specialized medical genomics projects, such as the IDEAL consortium, which conducts integrated research on the determinants of aging and longevity with a focus on epigenetics. The institute is also working on many genomic and epigenomic projects to identify biomarkers that help predict cancer and improve personalized cancer therapies and drugs. Although in the minds of most people cancer is not directly related to aging, the older we get, the more common most cancers become. A 2019 study, Epigenetic Aging: More Than a Clock When It Comes to Cancer, recognizes that aging is one of the most significant risk factors for cancer. Aging causes changes at the molecular and cellular tissue level, both in nature and in our environment. The study continues to look at epigenetic watches and their potential use in predicting cancer risk.
There is still room for much further research on how epigenetic markers and watches can help reduce cancer and other risks by promoting healthy aging steps. Many longevity companies have embraced the vision of healthy aging as their mission. Altos Labs, Juvenescence, Insilico Medicine, AgeX Therapeutics, Unity Biotechnology and Deep Longevity are just a handful of companies leading the way in longevity technology. Deep Longevity, a US provider of artificial intelligence (AI) systems for tracking the rate of aging, announced in July 2021 that its epigenetic clock (originally designed to use blood samples) could now use saliva samples. The development of the DeepMAge saliva watch offers many benefits, from a less intrusive and painful procedure for customers to potential profitability. This is an example of longevity technology that is becoming more user-friendly.
However, despite this development, epigenetic watches and similar technology for longevity remain expensive. This is the space of billionaires, as personalities like Peter Thiel of PayPal and Jeff Bezos of Amazon invest in longevity companies. Billionaires’ interest in anti-aging technologies is not surprising, but it will be a market for growth for all. As the aging population continues to evolve, companies need to focus on making their longevity technologies available and preventing actions that will deepen our existing socio-economic divisions or risk a worrying future with deteriorating patient access to health care.