When Nir Barzilai specialised in anti-ageing science 30 years ago, it was an act of hope. Now, the Israeli-American scientist believes the world is on the cusp of turning hope into reality, finding transformational drugs that prevent the effects of ageing that used to be viewed as inevitable.
“We are done with hope and promise. We are at the point between having promise and realising it”, says the director of the Institute for Aging Research at New York’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
He plans to run a huge flagship trial to test whether a cheap generic diabetes drug — metformin — can extend lifespan by years, after a promising UK study of real world patients.
If regulators approve metformin to target ageing, he believes large pharmaceutical companies and biotechs would jump into the “longevity” field. “Once we prove it, I think it will be an earth-shattering moment for everyone”, he says.
The fantasy of living forever has endured for centuries, from finding renewal in a fountain of youth to gaining immortality from a philosopher’s stone.
Although we are still unable to elude death, we have learnt to forestall it: science has improved life expectancy significantly, initially with more mundane measures such as sewers and vaccines, and then with new drugs to tackle chronic conditions such as heart disease. In the UK, life expectancy at birth almost doubled between 1841 and 2011.
But as many people now spend their last decades in poor health, scientists like Barzilai are on a quest to further increase not just lifespan but also healthspan: the number of healthy years we live.
Longevity researchers reject the hype that they are “curing death” but their vision still has the potential to ease some of the biggest problems of our time: soaring healthcare costs for a population whose health is creaking as it ages, and lacklustre productivity as people become too sick to work.