Warning: Since writing this article, it has become clear that the research in question has some serious flaws that came to light after it was published and widely reported. The conclusions here should be treated with caution. UPDATE: The paper has since been retracted.
The developed world is an ageing one. In 2008, the number of pensioners in the UK exceeded the number of minors for the first time in history. Centenarians – those who’ve lived for a century or more – are our fastest-growing demographic. By 2030, ageing baby-boomers will swell the ranks of centenarians to around a million worldwide. That will have important implications, not just socially and economically, but scientifically too. The genomes of these ‘oldest old’ provide a window into the biology of ageing and the secrets to a longer (and healthier) life. It’s a window that Paola Sebastieni from Boston University School of Public Health has just peered through. By studying the genomes of over a thousand centenarians, she has developed a model that can predict a person’s odds of living into their late 90s and beyond with an accuracy of 77%. On the surface, this might seem like a very complicated piece of fortune-telling, but getting accurate predictions isn’t an end unto itself. The point of the exercise is to better understand the full complement of genetic variants that can affect our risk of living to an older age and doing so healthily.
An assortment of tree-living mammals
In The Descent of Man, Darwin talked about the benefits of life among the treetops, citing the “power of quickly climbing trees, so as to escape from enemies”. Around 140 years later, these benefits have been confirmed by Milena Shattuck and Scott Williams from the University of Illinois.
By looking at 776 species of mammals, they have found that on average, tree-dwellers live longer than their similarly sized land-lubbing counterparts. Animals that spend only part of their time in trees have lifespans that either lie somewhere between the two extremes or cluster at one end. The pattern holds even when you focus on one group of mammals – the squirrels. At a given body size, squirrels that scamper across branches, like the familiar greys, tend to live longer than those that burrow underground, like prairie dogs.
These results are a good fit for what we already know about the lives of fliers and gliders. If living in the trees delays the arrival of death, taking to the air should really allow lifespans to really take flight. And so it does. Flight gives bats and birds an effective way of escaping danger, and they have notably longer lives than other warm-blooded animals of the same size. Even gliding mammals too tend to live longer than their grounded peers.
It’s 1964, and a group of Canadian scientists had sailed across the Pacific to Easter Island in order to study the health of the isolated local population. Working below the gaze of the island’s famous statues, they collected a variety of soil samples and other biological material, unaware that one of these would yield an unexpected treasure. It contained a bacterium that secreted a new antibiotic, one that proved to be a potent anti-fungal chemical. The compound was named rapamycin after the traditional name of its island source – Rapa Nui.
Skip forward 35 years and rapamycin has made a stunning journey from the soil of a Pacific island to the besides of the world’s hospitals. Its ability to suppress the immune system means that it’s given to transplant patients to stop them from rejecting their organs and its ability to stop cells from dividing has formed the basis of potential anti-cancer drugs. But the chemical has an even more interesting ability and one that has only just been discovered – it can extend lifespan, at least in mice.
David Harrison, Randy Strong and Richard Miller, leading a team of 13 American scientists, have found that capsules of rapamycin can extend the lifespans of mice that eat them by 9-14%. That’s especially amazing given that the mice were already 20-months-old at the time of feeding, the equivalent in mouse years of a 60-year-old human.
There will undoubtedly be headlines that proclaim the discovery of the fountain of youth or some such, but it is absolutely critical to say up front that this is not a drug that people should be taking to extend their lives. Rapamycin has a host of side effects including, as previously mentioned, the ability to suppress the immune system. Harrison says, “It may do more harm than good, as we know neither optimal doses nor schedules of when to start for anti-ageing effects.” So the new discovery doesn’t put an anti-ageing pill within our grasp. It’s far better to see it as a gateway for understanding more about the basic biology of ageing, and for designing other chemicals that can provide the same benefits without the unwanted risky side effects.
Nonetheless, it’s still very exciting, especially since the nutrition market is already awash with supplements that claim to slow the ageing process but which have little evidence to back their claims. Likewise, scientists have tested a number of different chemicals but the few positive effects have typically been small or restricted to a specific strain of mouse. Rapamycin is different – as Harrison himself explains, “no other intervention has been this effective when starting so late in life on such a diverse population.”