Imagine my surprise when I opened my e-mail and found a note from a biomedical researcher at the Spanish National Cancer Research Center in Madrid, Spain. His name is Manuel Collado. He heard about my book, Googled it, and came across this site. “I am totally shocked,” he wrote. Why? Because he also has a blog about the search for eternal youth, “La Fuente de la Eterna Juventud” (http://fuentedelaeternajuventud.wordpress.com). And like me, he is trying to help his readers sort truth from fiction in the many anti-aging claims that are out there.
I asked Manuel for his perspective on anti-aging medicine.
Q: Your specialty as a scientist is cellular senescence. Explain what that is, in laymen’s terms?
A: All the cells that make up our body have a limited potential of proliferation: When they have undergone a certain number of cell divisions, they permanently stop proliferating. This phenomenon was originally described in the ´60s by Leonard Hayflick and was considered the cellular basis of the aging process. Accordingly, our bodies would stop regenerating because our cells can no longer divide. Later on, research on the enzyme telomerase and the protective structure at the tips of our chromosomes–the telomeres–showed that the cells “decide” to stop proliferating when they “feel” that their telomeres have reached a critically short length due to the erosion they suffer as a consequence of cell division.
Other processes have also been shown to trigger this cellular senescence response in the cell. Many were considered to reflect the natural process of aging, such as the accumulation of oxidative damage, but in the late years of the last century, cellular senescence was revealed as a natural defense mechanism of our bodies against cancer. When an oncogene becomes activated within the cell due to a mutation, or the cell suffers a potentially oncogenic damage, it will induce senescence as a way to make sure that the defect is not propagated into the daughter cells through cell division to form a tumor. We, and others, identified this type of response in human and mouse tissues.
Q: How did this work cause you to become interested in anti-aging medicine?
A: The molecular machinery behind the cellular senescence response is composed of a series of proteins encoded in genes, known as tumor suppressor genes. During cancer development, these tumor suppressor genes are frequently mutated or inactivated to cancel the protective senescence response and allow tumor growth. Strikingly, some of these same tumor suppressor genes appear to become active and increase their expression during aging. This has led many to believe that the increase in tumor suppressors during aging induces cellular senescence, and that the accumulation of these arrested cells causes the dysfunction of tissues characteristic of aging.
Our laboratory has addressed this question by generating mice that were genetically manipulated to express higher doses of these tumor suppressor genes. What we found is that these modified animals are more protected against cancer and at the same time live longer. They developed fewer tumors and less aging-associated pathologies. Their skin, bones, neuromuscular coordination, metabolism, etc, resembled those of younger animals.
At the same time, it is a well-known fact that cancer is mainly a disease of aging. This interplay between cancer and aging, cellular senescence as a tumor suppressor mechanism or the basis of aging, the possibility of enhancing our anti-cancer defenses while at the same time gaining in healthspan (the period of one’s life free from chronic diseases), makes the whole field a very attractive area of research.
Q: The name of your blog, in English, is “The Fountain of Eternal Youth.” What are some of the subjects you write about there?
A: My intention when I started this blog was mainly to provide information on the fantastic research that has been done on the molecular basis of aging. Many molecular pathways have been proposed to be responsible for the aging process and this knowledge has prompted many to propose potential interventions that could result in healthier aging.
Aging is obviously a process governed by multiple and complex factors that we do not fully understand yet, and it is intricately entwined with basic processes of life whose connections still need to be investigated.
However, the rapid communication of spectacular laboratory results–together with the greed of people willing to cash from the logical human desire to remain forever healthy and young–has launched a plethora of un-tested therapies, “miracle” cures, and even bogus remedies.
The blog is still in its infancy, but we have already covered issues such as cellular senescence, telomeres and telomerase, calorie restriction, antioxidants, stem cell-based therapies, and the like.
Q: As you know, there is a lot of misinformation out there about what has actually been proven to extend life (if anything). What is an example of an anti-aging claim that you’ve come across that you think has been overblown or improperly communicated to patients?
A: To start with the first part of your question, there is absolutely nothing that has proven to be effective extending life or even just preventing age-related diseases.
One of the most astonishing anti-aging claims that antioxidants will help people live young forever and avoid cancer and all diseases. While it is true that there is some good solid research on the possible role of oxidative stress as a mediator of the aging pathologies–as well as in cancer development–a clear causative role is far from being proven. The efficacy of an antioxidant intervention, therefore, is even further away from being established. If anything, when tested in clinical trials involving healthy volunteers, it showed that it is more detrimental than beneficial. Still, we constantly receive the message that we should be eating food and drinks containing plenty of antioxidants and even swallowing antioxidant supplements. There is no evidence and no scientific basis to think that this would do any good, only data showing how dangerous it might be.
Q: What is the one thing you tell people they can do right now–safely and effectively–to help extend their lives?
A: Even the more sensible health advice, based on reasonable assumptions, should not be advertized as capable of protecting us from aging or extending our life. Healthy habits such as some regular physical exercise, varied and balanced diet, staying fit and keeping an active network of relationships with friends and family, might not extend our lives, but surely they will make them more enjoyable.
Here’s how to find Manuel: