The UK’s biotechnology industry is competing against wealthy individuals in the US in the pursuit of discovering the key to everlasting youth.
Around ten years ago, a group of 125 non-professional bike riders from various parts of the United Kingdom arrived at the labs of King’s College London. Ranging in age from 55 to 79, they were taking part in a study that aimed to investigate the impact of consistent physical activity on the ageing process.
The study, conducted by Professor Janet Lord of Birmingham University and Professor Steve Harridge of King’s University, focused on immune cell biology. The team made unexpected discoveries while analyzing the cyclists’ bodies and collecting blood samples over a period of several years.
The participants of this study were avid cyclists who were in good physical condition, averaging 60 miles of riding per week.
According to Lord, who is the director of the university’s Institute for Inflammation and Ageing and a special adviser to the House of Lords inquiry into ageing, their research found that common beliefs about increased body fat being inevitable with age were not true. This was demonstrated by comparing their group of regular exercisers, who did not experience significant muscle or bone mass loss, with healthy older adults who were not regular exercisers. The House of Lords inquiry into ageing published a report on this topic in 2021.
The largest unexpected discovery regarding the thymus gland, located above the heart and responsible for producing T-cells, is that it typically decreases in size as people age – except in the case of cyclists. This decline can have an impact on an individual’s immune system. As stated by Lord, this is why older individuals may not have a strong response to new infections such as Covid or vaccines.
She and her team are continuously observing the cyclists in order to determine the necessary amount and intensity of exercise needed to obtain health benefits.
In recent years, British universities have been conducting numerous projects, including this study, to establish the UK as a leading force in global ageing research. Despite being in its early stages, the sector of longevity science is expected to become a lucrative industry, with projected growth to reach $2 billion (£1.6 billion) by 2030, according to Insight Analytics.
Several startups focused on longevity in the field of biotechnology have emerged, including Senisca in Exeter, Genflow Biosciences in London, and Shift Bioscience and clock.bio in Cambridge. In the United States, California-based companies like Altos Labs (which also has a research institute in Cambridge), Calico (supported by Google’s parent company Alphabet), Unity Biotechnology, and Retro Biosciences are at the forefront.
Lorna Harries, a professor of molecular genetics at the University of Exeter and founder of Senisca in 2020, stated that they exceed expectations in both the caliber and amount of scientific work in the field of ageing. However, despite being a strong force in the scientific community, there is a need to improve their capability to translate research results into practical applications in the real world.
Many companies are striving to find a formula that will promote longevity by maintaining the vitality of our cells. As of now, it is estimated that girls born in the UK in 2020 will live for around 90 years, while boys are projected to have a lifespan of approximately 87 years.
According to Professor Lynne Cox, a specialist in cell senescence at the University of Oxford, it is possible to live up to 120 years if you follow healthy practices and are fortunate enough to have favorable genetics. Cell senescence refers to the process in which damaged or stressed cells transition into a harmful state that can impact surrounding tissues.
The process of ageing is commonly understood as the buildup of harm to cells, or deterioration, as time passes, which can result in impaired abilities and common ailments like diabetes, heart disease, dementia, and cancer.
Over six decades ago, Leonard Hayflick, an American anatomist, made the discovery that human cells have a restricted ability to split before reaching a state of senescence.
In 1993, Cynthia Kenyon from the University of California, San Francisco conducted a groundbreaking research showing that changes in a single gene in a type of worm could potentially double their lifespan. However, this phenomenon has not been observed in humans. Currently, there are ongoing efforts to explore cellular reprogramming and other methods to slow down or even reverse the aging process.
Genflow Biosciences, a company based in London, was the first longevity company in Europe to go public in December. They are utilizing a specific gene variation found in individuals who live to be 100 years old in order to create a treatment that can potentially repair DNA damage and increase the duration of our healthy years by 25%. The company plans to conduct a trial of this experimental therapy on individuals with a liver disease associated with aging, known as NASH, within the next 18 months.
Eric Leire, the founder of Genflow, expressed a desire to spread the advantage of having good genes to everyone. He hopes that more than just a select few will have the opportunity to live to 120 years old without ever needing chemotherapy.
Senisca is researching methods to revive the ability of cells to regulate the expression of their genes, with the goal of rejuvenating aged cells.
Harries stated, “Our groundbreaking revelation goes back almost a decade and a half. Each gene has the potential to produce multiple messages with specific instructions based on the cell’s surroundings. Our research revealed that as we get older, this capability is lost in our cells, rendering them unable to respond to challenging stimuli from the environment and leading to senescence.”
According to her statement, by reactivating certain genes, we can enable cells to produce necessary components and rejuvenate. Senisca’s goal is to create treatments that can benefit the elderly in the next decade.
Shift Bioscience, founded by biologist Daniel Ives from Cambridge University, utilizes machine learning to investigate the process of cellular reprogramming.
Steve Horvath, a geneticist from Germany and America, was the first to create a precise “clock” that measures human aging by studying DNA changes in various tissues. Similarly, Shift has created a clock for single cells to determine aging and will utilize it to identify safe combinations of genes for cellular reprogramming. This process is estimated to take two years, with subsequent testing on human cells in a laboratory, mice, and eventually humans.
Steve, the finance chief at Shift and father of Ives, discussed the concept of introducing genes into cells to initiate processes that reverse the biological aging of those cells. This emphasis on reprogramming marks a shift towards addressing the underlying causes of aging.
Mark Kotter and Markus Gstöttner, the co-founder and chief executive of clock.bio respectively, have announced plans to conduct a clinical trial by 2030 with the goal of rejuvenating cells.
The US has seen a surge of attention towards the anti-aging sector, drawing in a group of health-conscious technology entrepreneurs, including some called “fit billionaires” due to their recent dedication to physical well-being. One such example is Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, who supports Altos Labs.
Bezos and Peter Thiel, the creator of PayPal, have invested in Unity Biotechnology based in San Francisco. The company’s main goal is to remove or adjust senescent cells in order to repair damaged tissues, with a focus on treating neurological disorders and eye conditions. Sam Altman, an entrepreneur in the field of artificial intelligence and CEO of OpenAI, has also invested in Retro Biosciences, which is researching cellular reprogramming. Another company, NewLimit, supported by cryptocurrency mogul Brian Armstrong, CEO of Coinbase, is also pursuing cellular reprogramming as a potential solution.
According to Harries, there are significantly fewer startups in this field in the UK than one would anticipate given the amount of research being conducted. This could be due to the fact that academics in the UK are not typically trained to be entrepreneurs.
According to Cox, British scholars often have numerous other obligations. He believes that the current incentives do not encourage academics to pursue startups, as it is a high-risk endeavor. Many universities struggle with the concept of commercializing their research.
Lord highlights the absence of a prosperous venture capital industry to support new businesses. “It’s a significant factor in the US, but unfortunately, we don’t have that in our country. Therefore, we heavily rely on government funding. If we can attract more venture capitalists to invest in the UK’s entrepreneurial landscape, it would greatly benefit us.”
One field of study focuses on inflammation, which is a significant contributor to the aging process. According to Cox, the human genetic makeup contains fragments of viral DNA that were introduced during evolution and typically remain suppressed. However, as we age, these fragments can become active again and cause inflammation, which is the body’s way of responding to an infection. The issue is that our immune system also ages, making it less capable of handling this response.
The Oxford University team is exploring methods to enhance the immune systems of older individuals by increasing their cells’ ability to remove waste through autophagy.
According to academics, individuals who live to be 100 years old often have inherited genes for longevity. However, having a healthy balance of gut bacteria is also crucial. A study in Japan revealed that the gut bacteria of centenarians differ from those of other elderly individuals. In fact, one type of bacteria even serves as an antibiotic, eliminating harmful bacteria in the gut.
Socioeconomic circumstances also play a role. According to Cox, individuals who experience socioeconomic disadvantage tend to have more cell senescence, inflammation, and exposure to environmental pollutants and unhealthy diets. This can be observed through their molecular aging profile, indicating a faster aging process.
Scientists are discussing a change in perspective, with a focus on addressing the underlying factors of age-related illnesses rather than just their symptoms. This approach could potentially ease the strain on healthcare systems like the NHS.
Many believe that the UK has the potential to be a leader in the field of longevity. According to Miles Witham, a professor at Newcastle University specializing in clinical trials for older individuals, the UK is currently a global leader in laboratory research on aging and the epidemiology of aging. However, the challenge lies in translating this knowledge into human clinical trials and ultimately, treatment for patients. Witham points out that this is not being adequately addressed by any country globally, but efforts are being made to ensure that the UK remains at the forefront of this field.