Aging happens to all of us, but scientists still don’t know the mechanism behind it. We need to focus on finding an answer, says molecular biologist Oliver Medvedik.
If given the option, would you choose to live forever? Many of us would say “yes,” but with one major caveat: just as long we don’t age. In scientific terms, aging means “a progressive loss of fitness in an organism over time,” says molecular biologist and TED Fellow Oliver Medvedik. What causes this loss of fitness in humans is multifaceted, although scientists are exploring different theories including — and these are just a few of the many avenues of research — the deterioration of the health of our telomeres (the ends of our chromosomes), changes in cell mitochondria, inefficient clearance of damaged cell proteins, and the senescence of stem cells, leading to chronic inflammation and a depletion of stem cells.
Although it causes a loss of fitness and health, aging is not seen as a disease. “The FDA defines a disease as something that afflicts only a segment of the population. But aging affects everyone,” says Medvedik, the co-founder of Genspace, a citizen science biotech lab, and a professor of bioengineering at the Cooper Union in New York City. And because aging is not considered a disease by the government, it limits the amount of federal funding available in order to study it.
That’s why Medvedik has cofounded a crowdfunding platform to raise money for research into aging. “If we can find the general mechanism for aging, then we can tackle a lot of other things,” he says. “In other words, by investing our biomedical funds in aging research, it could give us the biggest bang for our buck. It could help us figure out how to slow down the clock on everything from Alzheimer’s to cancers, heart disease, diabetes.”
The nonprofit started by Medvedik and his colleagues is called Life Extension Advocacy Foundation, or LEAF. The scientists in LEAF initially came together to advocate for increased research funding from the government and create a strong community for aging research. “It naturally evolved from ‘How are we going to get the public excited about this?’” he says, “and the crowdfunding idea was born.” LEAF resembles other crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter or GoFundMe, with one twist — it’s nonprofit.
The first experiment funded by LEAF focused on mitochondria. “We started off with a project from the SENS Foundation, an organization founded by Aubrey de Grey [TED Talk: A roadmap to end aging],” says Medvedik. “It involved trying to take genes from mitochondria and shuttling the genes back into the nucleus, because the nucleus is a much more protected environment for genetic information than mitochondria.” Initial results from this project were published in the peer-reviewed journal Nucleic Acids Research in November 2016.
For the LEAF cofounders, their dream is not just about enabling humans to live to 200. After all, what’s the use of reaching the two-century mark if you need to endure decades full of illness and infirmity on your way there? Instead, Medvedik and his colleagues want to help people enjoy good health for as long as possible. “Think of it more as extending one’s health span rather than life span,” he says.
With aging research, Medvedik has his eyes on the long run (of course). Scientists first must reach a consensus about the mechanism or mechanisms causing the progressive loss of fitness. “It has to be a universal hypothesis that would qualify as a core mechanism for aging,” he says. “We don’t have that yet, although I’m very confident that we will soon.” Still, identifying the precise mechanisms of human aging will lead to more questions before we have solutions. “Nothing is going to happen suddenly,” he adds. “Even once we gain a good theoretical understanding of what causes organisms to age, we won’t see the ramifications in medicine until some time has passed.” While the DNA molecular structure was discovered in 1953, “it was quite a while until gene therapy was applied,” he says. “The theoretical aspects have to come first, so that advanced biotechnologies can build on that.”