Biomedical Engineers Look to Help People Live Much Longer

Technologists are working on many approaches to prevent age-related health conditions

26 June 2018

Biomedical gerontologist Aubrey de Grey says he believes that, thanks to imminent advances in technology, the first person to live to age 1,000 likely is alive today.

De Grey became interested in studying the biological aspects of aging, he says, because he views its negative effects, such as chronic pain and memory loss, as preventable. While he is focused on improving quality of life, he says longevity is a “side effect” of good health.

He helped to found the SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence) Research Foundation, a regenerative medical research nonprofit in Mountain View, Calif., that focuses on preventing diseases and disabilities related to aging.

“Those who are healthy and enjoy being alive should be able to stay that way,” he says, “irrespective of how long ago they were born.”

Living much longer lives will happen soon, he contends, challenging the notion that aging is inevitable or even natural.

Radiologist Joon Yun agrees. Yun is president and managing partner of Palo Alto Investors, in California. His family foundation has sponsored a number of initiatives and made a US $2 million gift to launch the National Academy of Medicine’s Healthy Longevity Grand Challenge, to “solve aging” as he puts it. Like de Grey, he says he is focused on improving quality of life so that people will be able to continue their active lifestyles without any trouble, no matter their age.

The two suggested areas where engineers can work to help people live longer and healthier lives.

REJUVENATING THE BODY

There are many opportunities in tissue engineering, stem-cell therapy, and immunotherapy. One of the projects the foundation is working on involves “death resistant cells,” which cause degenerative aging. These cells cause loss of muscle mass, inflammation, and metabolic changes. The foundation is looking into rejuvenating cellular and molecular structures to keep people young.

To restore health and vigor, organizations partnering with the foundation are experimenting with growing organs and cells in labs. That could allow for organs to be custom-made from the recipient’s cells. The cells also could be used as neurons for the brain or muscle for the heart. The process might eliminate the need for organ donors or searching for a match. It also would reduce the risk of transplant rejection, and a recipient’s organs would be biologically “younger” than those from a donor.

Researchers also are exploring safer ways to transplant organs so that process can become a common procedure.

In partnership with the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, in Winston-Salem, N.C., the foundation’s engineers have worked to reverse the shrinking and structural decay of the thymus gland, which protects against influenza, pneumonia, and other infectious diseases. Older people are more susceptible to getting such diseases. The team is using tissue engineering to build a new thymus gland from healthy cells to restore its function and build up the recipient’s immunity.

Related: What It Takes to Be a Bioengineer

Such projects have received an increase in funding in recent years from governments, charitable organizations, and the biotech industry. Companies focused on developing technologies for regenerative therapies are popping up as well, including AgeX Therapeutics, where de Grey is vice president for new technology discovery. Another is Forever Labs, which preserves people’s stem cells in case they’d like to use them when they’re older in an attempt to reverse their biological clock.

DEVELOPING BETTER DIAGNOSTICS

As people get older, they experience a decline in such vital functions as memory, digestion, and blood circulation. Yun is focused on what he calls functional longevity. He is offering a $1 million cash prize to researchers who can “hack the aging code,” or find a solution to aging that would prolong lives and maintain quality of life. 

Yun’s approach to prolonging life span is to restore the body’s ability to respond to stress, known as homeostatic capacity. As we get older, our capacity declines, causing functions to weaken.

Yun seeks to develop a better way to monitor vital functions to determine how healthy they are. Doctors could determine which functions are on the decline and then work to build up their strength.

To be able to measure a decline in vital functions, diagnostic tests need to measure system resilience in addition to system state, Yun says. That means not only measuring people’s blood pressure, heart rate, cholesterol, and glucose at an arbitrary time of the day but also measuring those levels continuously as well as how the functions respond to stress.

“Our biology is dynamic,” Yun says. “What changes significantly when we age is not our baseline heart rate but the efficiency of our heart rate recovery after exercise. Why are we only measuring variables that have no correlation with aging?” In other words, we should be measuring for resilience, which declines with age.

“As we age,” he notes, “we just don’t bounce back the same way as we did when we were younger.”

What are needed, he says, are four-dimensional diagnostic tools that provide temporal resolution and health improvement regimens that use positive stress, known as eustress, to increase the body’s resilience and to keep the functions strong. According to Yun, challenging the body’s functions with intermittent eustress can increase the body’s homeostatic capacity, like exercise can strengthen muscles. Lack of healthy doses of eustress can cause the body’s functions to atrophy, he says.

Medication to reduce symptoms of chronic conditions can paradoxically weaken the body’s homeostatic capacity, he says, and lead to dependence on drugs.

“Engineers already stress-test everything,” he says. “They can contribute to biology by bringing their expertise of system dynamics into the field—something many biologists don’t currently consider.”

Yun is looking for entrepreneurs and engineers who have ideas on how to measure homeostatic capacity.

“Rather than thinking about inflammation as a cause of aging, we should think about it as a loss of inflammatory capacity,” he says. “Instead of thinking that weight gain is just part of aging, think of it as a loss of metabolic capacity.”

If Yun’s approach is successful, the elderly could be as healthy as when they were young. Improving and maintaining high homeostatic capacity, he says, could be the gateway to longevity and sustained health.

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IEEE membership offers a wide range of benefits and opportunities for those who share a common interest in technology. If you are not already a member, consider joining IEEE and becoming part of a worldwide network of more than 400,000 students and professionals.

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