Smart Biology to the Rescue

Smart biology - Photos courtesy of Genescient

As the Boomers begin to go gray and fragile, those with way high expectations confront an uncomfortable fact — nobody has done much about aging, throughout their lifetimes… and they get angry.

How could this be?! Technology has carried us along on its broad back, giving us computers, conveniences, Internet and media wonders. But aches and pains foretell much bad news ahead. We can do better, but to do it we’ll have to reinvent biology.

Face it: young or old, we can’t solve “the aging problem” using the standard 20th Century research methods of cell biology. Sure, they had some great success with some other medical problems — nobody fears smallpox, polio and other old school diseases. Diet and exercise help, too, (as discussed in my last column.) But nobody has done much directly about the mechanisms that erode our bodies.

Why? Because beyond our 20s, natural selection doesn’t help us much. Once we start reproducing, all the genes that break us down get passed on to the next generation. It’s been that way throughout natural evolution. Aging arises from a lack of natural selection in later adulthood.

So what’s the smart biology dodge around this? Make selection work for us by forcing it to produce longer-lived animals. And then learn from what forced selection tells us. That’s what the 21st Century medicine man knows. We can already see him peeking around the corner up ahead. He says: Your aging comes from multiple genetic deficiencies, not a single biochemical problem.

Michael Rose at UCI saw all this coming 30 years ago. He started breeding longer and longer lived fruit flies (Drosophila) by having them not keep their eggs to make the next generation until much later in adult life. Do that in humans and you’ll be trying to get babies out of 60 years olds — not a promising route — though I guess the Italians, with a 1.1 fertility rate (2.1 is replacement) are trying.

Rose’s years of painstaking Methuselah fly stud-servicing produced a fracking miracle: flies that live 4.5 times longer than ordinary flies. Do that with humans for 10,000 years – 500 generations – and you’ll start approaching rose’s results. But to get the advantages today you’d have to start back before there were cities.

That’s why smart biology uses “animals” — particularly insects, that don’t live long — to squeeze those 10,000 years down to a career lifetime of about 40 years. (Rose is in his 50s.)

MicroscopeWhat do the genetic inventories of these Methuselah flies show? Multiple, overlapping genomic pathways. About 75% of the genes do the same jobs in flies as they do in humans. We share these basic operating systems with insects that we parted company from about a billion years ago. (Yes, intelligent design fanatics, you are related to mosquitoes. Suck it up. Stop bugging me.)

Genescient Corporation acquired the use of the Methuselah flies’ genomics and has developed their implications for three years. Knowing that these complex genomic pathways can enhance resistance to the many disorders of aging, their crucial step is to find substances that can enhance the action of those pathways. Designer supplements containing nutrients made using detailed genomic information — a field called nutrigenomics — are about to come to your local supermarket, some of them using obscure traditional medicines. This is the essence of a 21st Century approach to aging. Nothing like it has existed before this year.

Noted hard science fiction author and Genescient (which means ‘smart genes’) cofounder Gregory Benford argues that there seems no fundamental reason why we can’t live to 150 years or even longer (“and you can have sex up to 150 also”… I like that part). After all, nature has done quite well on her own, using pathways humans share and can now understand. The 4,800-year-old bristlecone pine, and koi fish over 200 years old, attest to this, not to mention tortoises.

Nature took several billion years developing these pathways; Genescient aims to explore them rather like someone playing SimEarth or Spore: by speeding up generational times. The medical technology emerging now acts on these basic pathways to immediately affect all types of organs. Traditionally, medicine focuses on disease by isolating and studying organs, and organizes diseases mostly by spotlighting local disorders. Genomics can focus on entire organisms by looking at the entire picture.

You’ll know 21st Century medicine has arrived when you see immortality pills featuring mixes of designer supplements.

You’ll know 21st Century medicine has arrived when you see immortality pills featuring mixes of designer supplements. These will regulate your own genes to improve their resistance to the many ways things can go wrong. The plausible outcome of taking these pills will be bodies that don’t seem to age as fast and that can maintain vigor long after the childbearing years, when we traditionally begin to show wear and tear.

That’s what happened with Michael Rose’s Methuselah flies. The Genescient labs track fly vigor by their mating frequency — they count how often the flies get it on — and the numbers of eggs the females lay. Those horny Methuselahs beat out the other flies in the mating game. Basically, the more you want and get sex, the longer you will live. Adult Friend Finder and Be Naughty, you are free to quote me on this.

After the first wave of designer supplements, we’ll see customized nutrigenomic pills. Medicine will get tailored to each personal genome. Targeting a person’s own suite of complex pathways, smart designer supplements and drugs can propel the repair mechanisms and augmentations that nature provided. This will benefit everyone, not just the genomically fortunate.

The 21st Century has scarcely begun, and already it looks as though many who welcomed it in will see it out. The first person to live to 150 may be reading this right now.

Alex Lightman is the author of the first book on 4G wireless, Brave New Unwired World (Wiley) and founder of pioneering companies in 3-D and Hollywood websites, wearables, and IPv6. He welcomes friending on Facebook.

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