In the future, medicine will no longer only be about curing the sick, but also about upgrading and rejuvenating the healthy, making the boundary between medicine and human enhancement more and more blurred
For September’s special issue topic, we spoke with a medical doctor, researcher and author who specializes in health, aging and the future of medicine and biotechnology. Dr. Kris Verburgh who will be one of the Keynote speakers on The 3rd Innovation week organized by AFA between September 21-25th in Belgrade.
He has already written several science books—one of which, written when he was only 16, made him the youngest science author in Europe. Dr. Verburgh created a new scientific field, nutrigerontology, that studies how nutrition can accelerate or slow aging and influence the risk of aging diseases, like heart disease or dementia.
How would you explain longevity technology? What it is all about?
Longevity technologies act on the aging process in order to extend lifespan and healthspan. We are at an interesting crossroads in history. In the past 20 years we learned more about the aging process than in the 2000 years before. Additionally, in the past years we have seen the rise of new biotechnologies that will enable scientists to impact the functioning of our cells at a molecular level. Also, recent studies in animals show that it’s possible not only to slow down aging, but even partially reverse the aging process. In these experiments old animals were made younger again. This shows that aging is not set in stone, but that it’s amendable for reversal. Examples of longevity technologies to impact aging are epigenetic reprogramming, gene editing, clearing away of senescent cells, or getting rid of the proteins or crosslinks that accumulate in our body during aging.
What is nutrigerontology and how did your interest in longevity started?
There is a lot of enthusiasm about new high-tech biotechnologies to address aging. However, the best technology we currently have to live longer is our nutrition. What, when and how much we eat impacts the rate of aging. Already in the 1930’s scientists discovered that if animals are fed less food they live longer. Later on, it was found that the typical western diet accelerates aging and increases the risk of various aging-related diseases such as heart disease or Alzheimer’s disease. Nutrigerontology is the scientific discipline that uses knowledge of the aging process to find out what is the best food pattern or diet on the long term. That would entail a diet with less sugars and starches, including bread, potatoes, pasta and rice, less red meat and more white meat and fish and vegetable protein sources, and more healthy fats such as in walnuts, avocado’s, fatty fish, olive oil and so on.
How can development of disruptive technologies have economic benefits and how can they make difference to wider society? How can development of disruptive technologies make impact on healthcare and life spans?
Many people still think that aging and aging-related diseases such as heart disease or Alzheimer’s are two different things. However, in fact, the same processes that cause aging also cause heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, osteoporosis, cancer and so on. Therefore, by targeting aging, you address the root cause of all these diseases. Moreover, by addressing aging itself, you will be able to address many diseases at the same time.
This insight is very important because we are facing a silver tsunami of elderly people that in the next decades could bankrupt the healthcare system of many countries, and that will substantially slow down economic growth. It’s paramount we keep elderly people healthy, active and involved. Medtech, agingtech and longevity biotech will play pivotal role in this.
Furthermore, biotechnology is an important pillar of the new industrial revolution that is currently unfolding, together with AI, robotics, the cloud, internet of things and other technologies. Any society will do good capitalizing on these developments. For example by funding research into these technologies and into aging itself. In fact, some people believe we are already engaged in some sort of cold war between the west and China: the countries that will develop the most advanced biotechnology and AI capabilities could get a big lead over other countries. But even viewed from a less dramatic geopolitical angle, it’s clear that addressing and slowing down aging itself is the best way to keep people healthy.
We spend billions of euro’s to “fix” heart disease, but even if nobody would get a heart attack anymore, people would hardly life longer given they will perish from another aging-disease, like Alzheimer’s or cancer. Therefore, it’s so important to target aging itself instead of individual diseases. Most countries, pharma companies, and governments are not realizing this. Aging research is still much underfunded, despite aging being the biggest driver of aging-related diseases, which account for around 86 percent of healthcare expenditures in most developed countries.
Biotechnology is an important pillar of the new industrial revolution that is currently unfolding, together with AI, robotics, the cloud, internet of things and other technologies
How can technology help people to live longer and be healthier? / What kind of technologies can address the aging process in near future?
Some promising technologies in development are for example epigenetic reprogramming. The epigenome determines which genes are active or not; the older we get the more the epigenome becomes dysregulated. There are ways to reset this epigenome, with interesting results, like old organisms that become younger or damaged nerves that started to regrow. Clearing away senescent cells is another interesting avenue. The older we get, the more senescent cells arise in our body: these are cells that secrete substances that damage surrounding healthy cells. There are various different approaches in development to clear away these senescent cells. However, the best method we now have to live longer is our lifestyle: eating healthy, exercising, not smoking, sleeping well, stress reduction and so on.
Is reverse aging possible and how can we practice reverse aging in our daily lives?
Recent studies have shown that it is possible to partially reverse aging, for example through the methods I described earlier, like epigenetic reprogramming or by clearing away senescent cells. In these studies old organisms became younger, and the changes brought forward could even be seen by the naked eye: grey mice got a shiny black fur, became more active again. Additionally their organs regenerated far better again, as in young mice. We also see that starting to eat healthy and adopt a healthy lifestyle in general can partially reverse some aspects of the aging process, however much less drastically than with new biotechnologies.
Whether longevity will be available only to the more privileged part of society or there is a way to make it accessible to everyone?
We have to be careful that the current biotech revolution will not create for the first time in human history a biological aristocracy consisting of individuals who have the means to rejuvenate and upgrade their bodies using the latest new biotechnologies. With the current technology it already would be possible for example to edit genes to improve muscle mass, increase cognition, enable stronger bones or make your immune to HIV or other diseases. We have to make sure that these technologies will benefit everyone. We nonetheless see that medicine in the future will no longer only be about curing the sick, but also about upgrading and rejuvenating the healthy, making the boundary between medicine and human enhancement more and more blurred.
Interest in longevity
My interest in longevity started since a young age: I wanted to know why aging exists and what happens in our body that causes us to age, and one day to perish. I also wanted to know why a mouse lives for only two years, while some whales can live for centuries, and some jellyfish and polyps seem to be immortal. Additionally, as a medical student I quickly realised that most diseases that afflict our society are caused by aging. So finding ways to slow down or mitigate aging is the best method to keep people healthy for the longest time possible.