Beyond Botox: the future of anti-ageing
DNA editing and lab-grown skin are some of the ways we'll be living - and looking - better in decades to come
For most of us, anti-ageing means wearing sunscreen, investing in a good moisturiser, maybe even a spot of Botox, and then hoping for the best. But research in this lucrative area is moving at an extraordinary pace - and for today's longevity scientists, anti-ageing means just that: slowing down, or even reversing, ageing as we know it.
Last month, American researchers tested lab-grown 'second skin' that could literally erase wrinkles for 24 hours. Next, experts predict the arrival of lab-grown organs routinely implanted at your local hospital, genes that can be edited to erase disease, and a longer life just a prescription away.
"In the last 40 years, we've gone from seeing ageing as something that was static and couldn't be moulded, to something that could potentially be altered," says Dr Nazif Alic, a researcher in the biology of ageing at University College London's Institute of Healthy Ageing.
As life expectancy in Ireland continues to increase - women can now expect to live until they're 83 - we are becoming more aware of our appearances for far longer. We want life in our years - not just years in our lives. Here's what our generation can hope for:
Available in a year... skin made in a lab
It's an exciting idea for those of us who seem to find a new wrinkle every day: a film applied to the face or body as a thin, transparent layer, making skin look younger. The new silicone-based polymer film, dubbed 'second skin', was developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US. After tests, researchers reported that it covered eye bags and wrinkles, making skin look smoother, firmer and more elastic. It is applied as two creams, one after the other, that dry into a film and can then be peeled off and discarded 24 hours later.
Anti-ageing specialist Dr David Agus is professor of medicine and engineering at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine and author of The Lucky Years: How to Thrive in the Brave New World of Health. Dr Agus has tried the 'second skin'.
"The bags under my eyes went away instantly, I looked rested and people were telling me I looked amazing," he says. "There have been many attempts to try and create skin in a lab but so far it wasn't comfortable, it didn't breathe well and didn't last more than a few hours. This is probably the most promising result we've seen." It paves the way not only for a revolution in cosmetic treatment, but also for the delivery of medicines to the skin that can be slowly absorbed to treat wounds or illnesses.
The treatment was co-developed with a cosmetic company and while the MIT researchers refuse to speculate on when the treatment might become available, Dr Agus, who wasn't involved in the research, predicts: "My gut feeling is we'll see it some time in 2017."
In three to five years ... editing disease out of your DNA
Having your DNA genetically modified or 'edited' could be available within five years, says Dr Agus. In 2015, biotech company Editas Medicine announced plans to genetically edit the DNA of patients suffering from a genetic condition that prevents the normal functioning of the retina.
It's possible, thanks to new cutting-edge gene-editing technology Crispr, (Clustered, Regularly Interspaced, Short Palindromic Repeats), a naturally occurring defence mechanism used by bacteria that the technology harnesses to erase mutated areas of DNA.
"Crispr acts like scissors to cut out defective pieces of DNA so they can be replaced with other pieces of DNA," says Dr Agus.
"Using this technique, researchers have managed to tweak the genes in fish that affect how they age. It offers hope of finding treatments that can help us age slower and live longer."
But there are ethical concerns, warns Dr Agus. "The technology could be potentially used to control qualities such as intelligence, athleticism and beauty, and we don't know what revising the human genome to create permanent genetic modifications could mean for future generations."
In 10 years or more... an anti-ageing pill
From a new brand of gin - aptly named Anti-AGin - distilled with drinkable collagen to help roll back the years, to Esthechoc, dark chocolate developed by Cambridge scientists that promises to keep skin looking youthful, new anti-ageing potions are being launched every day. But while a bona-fide proven pill that could add years to our lives is not yet a reality, it's on the way, says UCL's Dr Alic. Most likely it will be in the form of drugs currently available for other conditions that have been shown in trials to have an anti-ageing effect.
In June last year, Dr Alic's team found that fruit flies given a cancer drug lived 12pc longer than average and, last month, another UCL team found the drug lithium - routinely prescribed to treat bipolar disorder - could lead to a lifespan increase of up to 18pc.
Meanwhile, a medicine called rapamycin, used to suppress the immune system in transplant patients, has been shown in mice trials to prolong life by 38pc.
In one study last month on dogs, it improved their heart functionality. While its use as an anti-ageing drug is more than a decade away, Dr Alic says rapamycin has been shown in humans to help vaccine responses in the elderly.
"That's a positive effect on which we could base potential treatment," he says. But it is no wonder drug, he warns, and side-effects include inflammation of the testicles and suppression of the immune system.
In 20 years or more.. lab-grown organs
In 2008, the world was stunned when scientists at Bristol University grew a windpipe from stem cells in a lab and transplanted it into a woman who is, eight years later, alive and well, windpipe functioning and intact.
Stem cells are 'master cells' that can be manipulated in the lab to become other cells in the body.
There are two types - adult stem cells, which can repair the same tissues they're found in, taken from skin, bone marrow, fat or other parts of the body; and embryonic stem cells, from embryos.
Along with windpipes, regenerative medicine specialists have successfully used adult stem-cell therapy to treat urinary incontinence and grow human muscle, bone and ear tissue, though not yet on a large scale.
What's more exciting, says Dr Sanjay Sinha, a senior researcher for the British Heart Foundation and cardiologist at the Cambridge Stem Cell Institute, is the use of embryonic stem cells, as these can grow into any cell in the body.
"It's a much more powerful approach," he says, "especially when it comes to building larger organs such as kidneys and hearts, which adult stem cells don't usually work for."
It's a long way off, as embryonic stem-cell research is tightly regulated.
"This is what embryonic stem cells promise, but it could be two decades or more before such an organ is implanted into a patient."
What could this mean for our generation? "Hypothetically, in 20 or so years, someone with kidney or heart failure could get an organ that's been grown in a lab," says Dr Sinha.
That's instead of relying on donors, of which there is a chronic shortage.
"There might be 20 to 30 different types available to suit the majority of the population, so problems of rejection would be combated." © Daily Telegraph