Innovation

23 May 2019

Good genes make you live longer

What if people could live to more than 100 years old and still remain healthy, active and involved? Longevity genes and biomarkers may be the key to a long and healthy life.

  • Longevity is strongly associated with "good” and “bad” cholesterol levels.
  • Longevity genes appear to protect centenarians against major age-related diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and dementia. 
  • Biomarkers can be used to quickly and accurately diagnose immunosenescence in the patient.

Prof. Nir Barzilai is renowned throughout the world for his research into the biology and genetics of aging. He is particularly interested in people with an exceptional life expectancy. Barzilai is a professor at various universities, runs the Longevity Genes project and has discovered a number of “longevity genes”. These appear to protect centenarians against major age-related diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and dementia.

Better quality of life

“Centenarians live 30% longer and also have a better quality of life. This is not caused by their lifestyle, given that around 50% of them suffer from obesity and many of them smoke and are not very physically active,” says Barzilai. “That’s why I knew that there had to be something special about their genome, which was later confirmed by our findings.

We’ve never thought of treating aging itself. I hope to use my research to translate scientific knowledge into working treatments,” comments Barzilai. That is the reason why I co-founded CohBar, a biotech company devoted to developing therapies for age-related diseases. Ultimately, it isn’t about making people live longer, but enabling them to lead healthy lives for longer.

Aging and metabolism
“Age is only a number. It is the biological age that counts”

“Age is only a number. It is the biological age that counts, not the chronological one,” says Barzilai. The fact that someone can appear older or younger than his or her age means that people age in different ways. That insight prompted me to research aging.”                               

“At first, there were no research groups focusing specifically on the aging process. Aging was seen as something complex and insurmountable. I therefore started out by conducting research into our metabolism, because at that time it was the only field in which the aspects of aging could be studied.”

 “After a few years, I launched my own line of research. Viewing aging as a modulated process changed the perception dramatically,” explains Barzilai. While most researchers in the field examine specific cases such as progeria, a rare aging disease, he is looking in exactly the opposite direction.

Professor Nir Barzilai discovered longevity genes, which seem to protect centenarians against major age-related diseases.

Professor Nir Barzilai discovered longevity genes, which seem to protect centenarians against major age-related diseases.

Zooming in on the immune system

Research into aging is also being conducted closer to home. The University of Hasselt, the Université de Liège, the Maastricht University Medical Center, the University Hospital Aachen, IMEC and five companies from the Meuse-Rhine Euroregion are joining forces to slow down aging specifically by zooming in on the immune system.                              

The Healthy Aging project aims to identify immunosenescence (the deterioration of the immune system brought on by age) earlier on the basis of biomarkers in order to prevent or slow down that process. Biomarkers are substances in the blood that reveal and/or forecast the presence of diseases. The most suitable biomarkers can be ‘used’ in the development of biosensors – for a fast and accurate diagnosis of immunosenescence in the patient.

Biomarkers can be used to quickly and accurately diagnose immunosenescence in the patient.

In another area ‘personalised medicine’ is being targeted. At present, patients with a chronic disease are frequently treated in accordance with a ‘one-size-fits-all’ principle. However, not all patients respond to a particular therapy in the same way. Based on biomarker research, work is therefore being undertaken on a system that helps doctors to prescribe the most appropriate treatment. In addition to traditional drugs, this study also focuses on targeted immunotherapy and food supplements that can slow down immunosenescence.                                 

“This project is closely related to the mission of Happy Aging: giving a boost to innovations in dignified aging. With this project, expertise in healthy aging is being further extended in our region,” says Professor Dr Piet Stinissen, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Life Sciences of the University of Hasselt. “If we succeed in our objective, together with all our partners, we will offer elderly people the opportunity to lead healthy lives at home for longer. And, in one way, we will therefore help to reduce the costs of the aging population.”

Happy Aging as facilitator

Happy Aging is also committed to facilitating research into aging, but also to speeding up innovations that will make it possible to grow older happily and healthily. With a wide network of companies, healthcare organisations, knowledge institutions, policy organisations and international stakeholders, such as Professor Nir Barzilai, Happy Aging is attempting to facilitate sustainable innovations that will lead not only to more entrepreneurship in this sector, but also to higher-quality healthcare.

In the unique living lab, Happy Aging focuses on the end user: elderly people, carers and healthcare professionals. They provide feedback on their needs, wishes and limitations, and they test innovative products and services.

This article came about thanks to the collaboration and partnership between ING and Happy Aging.

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