Posted on Jan 18, 2019, 9 p.m.
Massive global DNA libraries resulting from genomic profiling are helping scientists to understand how we may extend longevity to live healthier for longer.
At home DNA testing tests are all the rage, and even make gifts for those who are curious or just like to keep up with the Jones’ trends. Companies now offer testing kits for under $100.00, adding to the appeal of those with any hint of curiosity to know lineage information on themselves and their families. While DNA testing may have just reached the mainstream, but it’s been 15 years since completion of the Human Genome Project, and publication of the first genome sequencing at a cost of over $3 billion.
Such DNA analysis has implications for helping humanity more than just understanding genealogical roots or risk of disease, the resulting global DNA library from the mass genomic profiling is helping scientists understand how to extend longevity, which means the ever sought for elixir of youth may no longer be the preserve of billionaires and may be accessible to billions.
This market has potential for a serious mountain of money to be made here; the 50+ market is 3rd largest after China and the USA. Investors seem to be unconcerned about addressing familiar problems of an aging population such as mobility scooters and care homes, but they are excited by products and services that consumers will buy in hopes to stay young. Emerging areas such as “femtech” technologies to promote vitality in women, especially to those affected by menopause will be the next big thing: Nicole Shanahan for example has invested in a center for female reproductive longevity and equality at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging.
Stats help to reinforce this as a report from the Milken Institute states those aged 50+ own nearly ¾ of all financial assets and spending by the age of 60+ globally is projected to reach $15 trillion by 2020. The 50+ age group spends almost half of all vacation dollars, accounts for 80% of luxury travel, and purchase more new cars than other age group within the USA alone.
Healthier aging will benefit all generations if the dividends of longevity will be shared evenly across all age groups in society. Lofty ideas of grandeur have propagated the longevity industry to be dominated by almost cultish, super wealthy, self serving, entrepreneurs until recently. Developments in the industry in understandings of genomics and interplay between genes and the environment are revealing hidden truths about aging.
Not only has the cost of genetic sequencing dropped to more affordable rates, decoding our DNA to understand aging is driving entrepreneurial ambitions and plans within the public sector, such as The 100,000 Genomes Project recently expanding to allow for 1 million whole genomes to be sequenced by the NHS and UK Biobank; with ambitions to have 5 million people agreeing to have their genomes sequenced within the next 5 years to help people live longer and better as a results of insights gained from the data. Genome sequencing is much like the internet was back in the 80s, it was there but no one was really using it until the first browser came out and commerce started.
In a world that is becoming increasingly driven by artificial intelligence data is king, as such platforms requiring data to develop algorithms. Every human genome generates 200 gigabytes of data, to put in perspective this is upwards of 40,000 times more than the complete works of Shakespeare. Such data is particularly valuable to pharma companies who are in risk of being disrupted by newer more agile firms such as 23andME, GSK, Juvenescence, and Insilico Medicine which are now breaking ground to predict biological age and the aging process in general via AI, biological markers and microbiological profile of gut microbiota, among others, combined with deep learning aging clocks that are already available for public testing using multiple data types.
The aging process and assumptions of chronic disease as being inevitable are now being re-thought. New studies unlocking the cellular basis of aging have shown that chronic disease can be slow down or prevented. Many now argue that aging is a set of accumulated side effects from metabolism which will eventually kill us off. According to Aubrey De Grey strategies to minimize cellular death, improve rate of repair and/or stop mutations will help us to stay younger and healthier for longer.
New and exciting possibilities are emerging, and old drugs such as rapamycin and metformin are being used in new ways to delay aging. Upwards of 100 new drugs have been found to extend life in animal studies when used with specific senolytic cocktails, such as combining dasatinib and quercetin has been shown to kill off senescent cells; Unity Biotechnology recently successfully completed an IPO, results of the clinical trial will show the effects of this new class of geroprotectors in humans.
Quests to extend longevity are not confined to big companies either as in 2018 several starts up emerged out of stealth mode including Elevian targeting age related muscle wasting and Life Biosciences working as an accelerator for multiple longevity oriented subsidiaries.
Due to an outcall from Y-Combinator offering $1 million to companies trying to cure aging and focus on longevity this means there will hopefully be a plethora of young starts up emerging in 2019. An increasing amount of venture funds, holding companies are funding and incubating a large number of promising companies in the space of longevity, many of these startups share the key feature of going to the people. LunaDNA is aiming to democratize genomics; Longenesis is applying AI and blockchain technology to help companies and biobanks to enable individuals to store, manage, and control access to many types of life data in a secure environment; and Nebula Genomics enables customers to profit directly from their genomes through control of their data.
This long awaited people first approach may just disrupt the business models of established industries, especially in pharmaceutical and financial services. Big Pharma is not the only one scrambling about to work out what longevity will mean to its business model. Big pharma has massively profited from chronic diseases, pension funds and institutional investors are equally reliant on the people dying earlier that later, and keeping data within their own private walls. Insurance companies on the other hand stand to gain by encouraging health and longer life and are belatedly starting to enter into longevity debates.
Impact of demographic change is already taking place from the healthcare system to the world of work. Currently there are 10 million people in the UK who will live to be 100, the Office of National Statistics predicts 1 in 4 people will be aged 65+ by 2037; by 2066 there could be an additional 8.6 million aged 65+ in the UK taking its 65+ age group to over 20.4 million. Potential problems are rather obvious in healthcare, transport, pensions, social care, and housing. However if done right longer lives paired with a growing population could increase size and productivity of the workforce, as macroeconomic studies show such increases should benefit economy and may lead to unprecedented increases in economic growth.
There are many issues facing older people such as isolation and mobility restrictions, but there are also opportunities and we have to choose which direction we want to take it. Such as in Japan where they have embraced new technology to help care for the elderly, however even this has potential to harm society if robots are allowed to become the default carer in absence of humans which will only add to isolation. There are alternatives in which technology can help to support families such as the Scurfield family using technology to help the family care for an elderly who otherwise would have been consigned to a care home at a significant cost.
More ethical innovations need to be developed to protect humanity across science, health, care, and financial services along with a blueprint to help guide the longevity industry who are lobbying for large scale investments and regulatory changes needed to benefit from the longevity dividend for all of society to gain benefits from. The ingenuity of scientist is needed to continue to develop and inspire innovation in aging research, paired with the imagination of leaders in big industry sectors, and pensions and insurance companies to develop products and services that motivate all people to live healthier, longer, and happier lives too.
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