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Research on ageing: Senolytics let us live longer and healthier lives

Unsplash Creative 0.0: Photo by Cristian Newman

The EU is currently trying to "beat cancer" with a new plan, which sets out to ban or restrict certain behavioural habits, such as smoking or drinking. Instead, we should look to innovation to increase our lifespan.

Supporting medical research to fight disease is seen by most people as something laudable, not controversial in any case.T he reaction seems to be different when it comes to stopping and slowing down the ageing process itself. Such an undertaking may strike many as either an unrealistic utopia or an immoral intervention in the course of nature.

Neither assumption is necessarily valid: In recent years, this kind of ageing research has gained immense popularity and scientific foundation; so-called senolytics play a vital role in this. So it is no longer a utopian thought experiment of some eccentrics.

Stopping the ageing process is not immoral, either, because it prevents the human body's natural development. The implicit assumption here is that adhering to the natural process of decay of the human body is morally superior. This is not particularly convincing. After all, even though the use of prosthetic joints and organ transplants, we improve our quality of life and life expectancy in an unnatural, in the first case even mechanical, way.

It's not necessarily about living forever

Even if you don't necessarily want to live much longer, there is an important reason to support life extension approaches. In treating diseases such as cancer and diabetes, it has been assumed that it is only possible to stop or alleviate the symptoms that appear after the condition has occurred. Preventive approaches are also being pursued but focus only on the prevention of specific diseases.

In the field of ageing research, however, this approach is fundamentally criticised by numerous scientists. They argue that this strategy does not effectively focus on the actual development of the disease. This is because it is insurmountably linked to the human ageing process. In other words: If we find a cure for ageing, we will most likely also find a treatment for cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular problems and other diseases of old age.

Switching off the ageing process with senolytics

Whatever the reason for being optimistic about the possibility of prolonging human life, senolytics seem to make this project more and more realistic. Senolytics are molecules that can induce the death of senescent human cells. These cells accumulate in the body with age, in humans and animals. Unlike non-senescent cells, these cells no longer divide.

It is assumed that cells divide until they reach the so-called Hayflick limit - usually around 50 cell divisions. After that, programmed cell death sets in. Senescent cells represent a tiny proportion that escapes this fate of the rest of the cells. Instead of dying or being destroyed, they continue to accumulate in the body. This senescence process causes an increase in inflammation in the body and is considered to trigger the ageing process.

It is believed that many signs of ageing and disease can be attributed to the increase in senescent cells - from dementia, osteoporosis, frailty, diabetes and heart disease to liver and lung disease and the more frequent occurrence of cancer.

The aim of senolytics to kill senescent cells, therefore, seems logical - removing cells that appear to be fundamentally responsible for the ageing process. An effective endogenous mechanism that leads to the cell death of senescent cells does not seem to exist. If this were the case, these cells would not accumulate over the years and cause all kinds of age-related diseases.

Senolytics could be ready for use in a few years

Even though this mechanism seems logical to stop the ageing process and associated diseases, this approach may still seem quite utopian. After all, it is a radical approach to conditions that differs from the previous focus on symptoms. Senolytics are also not just preventive interventions but rather pre-preventive: the aim is not to prevent the onset of certain diseases but to prevent the cause of all age-related diseases.

Nevertheless, senolytics could be ready for use in a few years, as clinical trials with human subjects are already taking place. The results are promising. Well-known biotech companies in this field include:

Currently, Unity Biotech is focusing on the use of senolytics to eliminate specific age-related joint diseases such as osteoarthritis, with an additional focus on eye and lung diseases. Last year, positive results were announced from one of the first studies involving human volunteers whose osteoarthritis symptoms were significantly reduced by adding the senolytic molecule UBX 0101.

Unity Biotech currently has the most progress in the field of human trials. Besides, there is, for example, Oisin Biotechnologies, which is developing a mechanism for precise targeting of senescent cells. The goal here is a tailored removal of senescent cells without damaging other cells. Clinical trials with human participants are currently in preparation.

Due to the rapid success and speed of research in senolytics, it is now assumed that these molecules could be ready for use in a few years to slow down the ageing process. It seems that utopias do not always have to be unrealistic or far away.

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