Scientists explore drugs that could keep us forever young
It sounds like something from the realms of science fiction but right now, science is racing towards a pill to "cure” old age.
Far from being a fact of life, some scientists now regard ageing as a disease to be prevented, even reversed, with a drug or drugs that will eliminate not only growing old but the myriad diseases that go with it.
Associate Professor Derek Richard is a level-headed sort of bloke, a Scotsman who works from a research lab attached to the Queensland University of Technology and says a drug to stop ageing is conservatively about 10-15 years away.
"We used to think of ageing as a linear pathway, a part of life,” he says. "Then there was a key breakthrough, that the very thing that brought on ageing, the damage to the genetic code, could be stopped, could even be reversed, which meant that the diseases of ageing never had to occur.
"Once we had that hypothesis, science saw ageing in a whole new light.”
It ushered in a boom in anti-ageing research around the world with Australian scientists at the forefront of hitting on a cure for growing old.
"That's the headline grabber,” Prof Richard says. "But certainly the achievable aim is for people to live healthier lives for longer.
"Now that we know the root cause of ageing and that it can be stopped, there are projects around the world all coming at it from different angles and perspectives but all reaching for the same pinnacle.”
Indeed, there are already old mice in labs who are young again and scientists who are so confident they've hit on the magic compound of youth, they are already testing their discoveries on their own bodies.
At this stage, it seems there will be more than one magic pill. Optimistic assessments of the 100 or so research projects under way globally estimate the first life-extension drugs will be on the market within three to four years with multiple anti-ageing medicines coming within the next decade.
Prof Richard's team is looking at ageing and cancer. They made headlines around the scientific world in May with their discovery that human cells have a "super hero” protein that rushes in to repair damage to the genetic code that breaks down as we age.
They're now looking at a drug to restore and support the activity of that protein in ageing bodies, to keep healthy cells behaving as if they are much younger than they are.
By the same token, when the protein is blocked in defective cancer cells, the cancer cells - in lab conditions - die.
"Ageing is a programmed event in the human body. At 45, it deliberately ramps down its own repair pathways and the cancer risk increases, as do other diseases of ageing.
"The damage to the genetic code manifests in different ways but it's the same root cause and we believe we can stop that happening.”
Findings like these that originate in Australian university research tend to be developed and commercialised overseas where funding is more available.
One of the big roadblocks in attracting funds for anti-ageing research is that, despite growing scientific sentiment, governments still do not regard ageing as a "disease”.
Under current guidelines, diseases qualify for the lion's share of government research dollars. The QUT team is looking for private backers. In the meantime, they're peddling coffee and are soon to bring out a range of face creams as fundraisers.
A joint venture between the University of New South Wales and Harvard led by Sydney geneticist Professor David Sinclair is further along the road that leads to market.
Prof Sinclair estimates his anti-ageing drug is about five years away. He and his family (and pets) are already taking his "miracle molecule” nicotinamide mononucleotide (NMN) that can make old cells healthy, increase blood flow and has made the elderly mice in his lab as sprightly as the youngsters.
"It's the equivalent of a 70-year-old becoming a 30-year-old again,” he says.
Far from sparking rivalries between the groups, Prof Richard says the two teams are very much researching the same science and collaborate on each other's findings.
"It fits in completely with our work,” he says. "We are in very regular contact.”
Already there have been bold predictions for the future. Prof Sinclair has said the first person to live to 150 has already been born.
But the brave new frontier in science is not without its ethical alarm bells. How will the planet cope with increased human lifespan?
Anti-ageing researchers have a ready answer for this. They are looking to increase "healthspan” rather than lifespan, a safer claim in a field desperate for respectable private backers to help get findings to market.
"We're not looking for immortality,” Prof Richard says. "Where we are now, people can live for 10 to 15 years with chronic illness.
"That places a huge strain on health budgets and that will only get worse as the population ages. These breakthroughs have the ability to extend the healthy life of humans, to stop diseases of ageing from happening, to keep them healthier for longer.”
It all sounds entirely reasonable, but what has science got to offer until these life-extending drugs make it to market?
Prof Richard is clear cut.
"A calorie restricted diet is proved to slow ageing,” he says. "Eating meat makes you age faster but it has other benefits.
"Lifestyle choices account for about a third of all cancers. Smoking cigarettes accelerates ageing because of the chemicals in them. UV light from the sun damages skin cells that also makes you age faster.”
The rest remains outside the realms of exact science although there is much global research under way on the anti-ageing effects of both diet and exercise - still our best bet to fight the clock, it seems, in this magic pill sort of world.
We can wait for miracle cures to hit or we can take matters into our own hands. Here are women winning the race against the clock.
The 56-year-old Francesca bought her first bikini at 52 for a bodybuilding competition her personal trainer urged her to enter.
"I'd never worn one before,” she laughs.
She said her own lightbulb moment on the path to combating ageing came at 50 after her son showed her pictures of how Asian women age.
"Everyone thinks we have good genes and can stay young looking but I thought of my mother's friends and I realised I didn't want to be like that so I started doing weight bearing exercise,” she says.
In her first bodybuilding competition, on the back of a 12-week challenge program, she was up against a line-up of much younger women but came second.
"That was it,” she says. "I thought 'Maybe I can do this'.”
Four years later, her diet and exercise routine is now the subject of gentle teasing from her two sons, 25 and 24, (a doctor and an engineer, she proudly adds) but she says she hasn't looked back.
"I look better now than I did in my 20s. And my sons agree with that.”
When she's preparing for a contest, she steps up her weight sessions, sometimes training twice a day, and switches to a higher protein diet rich in chicken and fish.
But it's not how she lives every day.
"I love food and I still want a social life so you have to find the balance,” she says. "I believe in the 80/20 rule. I eat healthy most of the time but you have to enjoy life too.”
Francesca has made her mark on the local bodybuilding circuit but her next goal is to compete in next month's Musclemania natural bodybuilding international event in Las Vegas.
Her best advice?
"Forget age,” she says. "We've got to live life and love life. I've got a saying: when s--t is happening every day, you just keep going and eventually that s--t turns into success.
"I have friends who complain that society doesn't value older women but that's because we have to value ourselves. You can't let yourself go.”
This 48-year-old grandmother hit the headlines when she made the finals of this year's Miss Maxim contest, knocking out hundreds of women less than half her age.
The single mother of four had breast augmentation 10 years ago but says she's never had any other cosmetic work or used Botox or fillers on her face.
"I entered the competition to try to win the prize money for a friend who had a stroke,” she says. "I don't think I was really prepared for the attention it would bring.”
Gina now has more than 100,000 Instagram followers and has been dubbed the "world's hottest grandma”.
She says there are no real secrets to her age-defying looks: "I don't drink coffee and I don't drink alcohol. Just half a glass affects me so I haven't had alcohol in years.
"I grew up in New Zealand where we didn't see a lot of sun and I suppose I've worn make-up every day from 15 so I don't know if that makes a difference. I try not to use chemicals and I'm a big fan of rosehip oil.”
Gina is a firm believer that all women are beautiful and would like to send the message to younger women particularly to accept their own beauty as they are.
"If my platform can do one thing, it would definitely be that,” she says.