2021 in longevity – prolific terrific scientifics

Taking a spin through some of our favourite scientific stories of the year.

A quick session with a calculator reveals we have published 653 articles so far this year; we’ve interviewed, we’ve reported, we’ve reviewed and we’ve opined. 2021 has been a great year for longevity science, with discovery, innovation and translation driving success in the antiaging space.

The age of immunity

Dr Anil Bhushan

Recent events have, of course, thrown a spotlight on our immune systems, but several stories this year have focused on our immune systems for other reasons. In May, we reported how scientists at UC San Francisco are leveraging the power of immune cells to clear the body of senescent cells that contribute to aging and many chronic diseases in the hope that this new understanding may open the door to new ways of treating age-related chronic diseases with immunotherapy. Senotherapeutic therapies are one way to remove senescent cells, but if our body’s own natural surveillance system could be stimulated to do the job, it could be a way to tackle senescence without side effects.

These immune cells, known as invariant Natural Killer T (iNKT) cells, function as a surveillance system, eliminating cells the body registers as foreign, including senescent cells, which have irreparable DNA damage, but which have ‘forgotten’ to die and this discovery spotlights potential immune therapy for chronic disease, offering hope for lung disease fibrosis, a disease which can necessitate a lung transplant or be fatal.

“Using iNKT-targeted therapy can piggyback on their exquisite, built-in specificity,” said Anil Bhushan, PhD, a professor of medicine at UCSF in the Diabetes Center and senior author of the study.

In July, the Buck Institute for Research on Aging announced an aging clock for immunosenescence. An inflammatory clock of aging (iAge) – it measures inflammatory load, rather than causing controversy – predicts multi-morbidity, frailty, immune health, cardiovascular aging and is also associated with exceptional longevity in centenarians.

David Furman, PhD, Buck Institute Associate Professor, Director of the 1001 Immunomes Project at Stanford University School of Medicine and senior author of the study, told us: “The iAge test is largely actionable and because the immunological proteins affected here are mechanistically linked to accelerated vascular aging, targeting these could prevent or delay the most feared diseases associated with older age.”

100 (and more) not out

And speaking of centenarians, long lifers were also in the headlines this year. In March we discussed new research that demonstrates that SuperAger brains can resist the protein tangles that lead to Alzheimer’s. SuperAgers, also called high-performing older adults, are individuals aged 80 years or older who retain exceptional cognitive and episodic memory performance equal to or greater than that of individuals aged in their 50s or 60s, and Northwestern Medicine scientists showed that their brains have resistance to the development of fibrous tangles in a brain region related to memory and which are known to be markers of Alzheimer’s disease.

Lead study author Tamar Gefen, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, said: “Individuals with significant memory impairment due to Alzheimer’s disease showed nearly 100 times more tangles in the entorhinal cortex compared to SuperAgers. There is a strong relationship between tau-tangles and memory loss, and these findings in a unique SuperAging cohort could guide research in a new direction.”

SuperAger brains work all the tangles
The genome of semi-supercentenarians (people who live to 105 and beyond) and supercentenarians (110+) had their genome decoded in detail this year, providing clues as to why these people live so long and manage to avoid age-related diseases. Researchers identified five common genetic changes that were more frequent in the 105+/110+ age groups, between two genes called COA1 and STK17A.

STK17A is involved in three areas important to the health of cells: coordinating the cell’s response to DNA damage, encouraging damaged cells to undergo programmed cell death and managing the amount of dangerous reactive oxygen species within a cell. These are important processes involved in the initiation and growth of many diseases such as cancer.

Time to wind the clock back

Dr. Fitzgerald

In May, we discussed a new clinical trial that demonstrated that mitigating DNA methylation with diet and lifestyle can produce a Horvath aging clock-measured biological age reduction of over three years – in only eight weeks.

The study was conducted among 43 healthy adult males between the ages of 50-72. Lasting eight weeks, the programme included diet, sleep, exercise and relaxation guidance. In addition, subjects were given supplemental probiotics and phytonutrients, including alpha ketoglutarate, vitamins C and A, curcumin, epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), rosmarinic acid and quercetin.

The study’s lead author, Kara Fitzgerald ND IFMCP, said: “What is extremely exciting, is that food and lifestyle practices, including specific nutrients and food compounds known to selectively alter DNA methylation, are able to have such an impact on those DNA methylation patterns we know predict aging and age-related disease. I believe that this, together with new possibilities for us all to measure and track our DNA methylation age, will provide significant new opportunities for both scientists and consumers.”

Nanofusion revolution

In November, we looked at how artificial mitochondria geerated from exosome fusion can create energy that throws a lifeline to damaged cells. Mitochondria are the body’s powerhouses, tiny energy-generators located in our cells, pumping out energy for growth, repair and all our vital functions. But what happens when the power fails – where’s the battery back-up?

Of course, there are a number of companies and institutions working hard to create artificial organs, but what about creating artificial organelles, throwing a lifeline to damaged cells from the inside out? Like a power bank that rescues a dying iPhone, researchers at the Center for Soft and Living Matter within the Institute for Basic Science (IBS) in South Korea turned exosomes into powerful nanoreactors that reduced cellular damage by removing reactive oxygen species toxins and prolonged the life of the cell.

“Taken together, our results highlight the potential of these exosomes as nanoreactors in regulating the metabolic activity of cells inside spheroids, and in attenuating cell damage due to hypoxia,” noted Yoon-Kyoung Cho, the corresponding author of the study. It is hoped that further research into such artificial organelles will present a new paradigm in various fields such as disease diagnosis and treatment, biotechnology, medicine, and the environment.