We need a Cern-like effort to power an extension in healthy life

It is not enough to focus only on designing better devices and medicines for managing the symptoms of ageing

December 07, 2022
© Alamy
© Alamy

We should celebrate people living longer, but the promise of longevity can only be fully realised if those years are healthy.

Disability-free life expectancy (i.e. the number of years that a person is expected to continue to live in a healthy condition) is falling in the UK, creating new challenges for individuals, society and public services. We are ageing too young and our health-span isn’t keeping up with our lifespan.

Ageing itself is complex. It’s a lifelong process, starting before birth and is vital to life and development. So, the science of ageing isn’t the pursuit of longer life; it’s about helping us live free of disease for longer.

Thanks to decades of research, we know much more about the effects of ageing. This could open a door to a new field and perhaps jumpstart a revolution in medicine similar to that driven by the development of antibiotics. We are starting to see exciting treatments that delay, alleviate or even partially reverse age-related diseases like dementias, arthritis, cancers, and heart disease.

We are starting to see exciting treatments that delay, alleviate, or even partially reverse age-related diseases

Recently we have seen a flurry of clinical trials of senolytic drugs that target “senescent” (worn out) cells which can cause disease. And there are now plans for a study to determine whether the diabetes drug metformin might delay the development or progress of many age-related diseases.

Rather than treating diseases simply on an individual basis, this new class of interventions represents a way to tackle the root causes of multiple diseases simultaneously. But we will also need to manage expectations. As always, most trials will fail to convert from mice to humans, although a few may succeed in offering major benefits. Miracle drugs are unlikely to emerge overnight, but 15 to 30 years is a credible timeframe to test the full potential of the science.

To help realise this, I propose an international effort to coordinate research in this field. This would allow governments to share the costs of exploratory research while spreading the benefits of discoveries. Here, we can draw inspiration from international collaborations like Cern in Switzerland, which now hosts 10,000 scientists from over 100 countries—all seeking new discoveries in particle physics.

A Cern for ageing research group would aim to develop new diagnostics for testing interventions, better coordinate existing efforts and build an interdisciplinary cohort of scientists exploring ageing across the whole life course.

Just as researchers at Cern have licence to explore the secrets of space and time, we need to mobilise a generation of scientists investigating how time affects the human body. It is not enough to focus only on designing better devices and medicines for managing the symptoms of ageing; we also need to tackle the underlying processes that lead to disease. This is humanity’s oldest problem, and one worthy of international attention.

This article first appeared in Minister for the future, a special report produced in association with Nesta.