Longevity genetics: crypto-backed study seeks 10,000 centenarians

Dr Nir Barzilai discusses new longevity genetics project funded by crypto investor; expects TAME trial to recruit first patients this year for metformin aging study.

The Institute of Aging Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and its director, Dr Nir Barzilai, are synonymous with the study of aging. Led by Barzilai, the Longevity Genes Project and the subsequent LonGenity studies have spanned decades, looking at the genes of people aged over 100, and their offspring, to see what can be learned about the secrets to longevity. This area of research is about to be greatly scaled up, with a new study aiming to collect longevity genetics data from 10,000 centenarians.

Longevity.Technology: Through his work at Albert Einstein and the American Federation for Aging Research (AFAR), Barzilai is involved in a wealth of research in the longevity field. In addition to learning more about this new project, we also spoke with Barzilai to get an update on the Targeting Aging with Metformin (TAME) trial, which aims to create a template for trials of age targeting therapies.

Barzilai says that, rather than focusing on data gathered from cell or animal studies, pharmaceutical companies are increasingly interested in human longevity genetics data that reveals how certain genetic mutations might be associated with specific diseases and longevity.

“Pharmacogenetics has become very important,” he says. “We’ve already done studies of 750 centenarians and their offspring, which found data on longevity genes that has contributed to the development of at least two drugs. We want to scale this data up, and we are now recruiting 10,000 centenarians and doing their whole genome sequencing.”

Barzilai tells us that the new longevity genetics study has been enabled through an investment from James Fickel, a 26 year old cryptocurrency expert with a growing interest in longevity philanthropy.

“James is really interested in aging and he just wrote a check of $2.8 million to AFAR to support this study,” he says. “In fact, there are lots of young people who are interested in aging. They’re trying to accelerate the field, and I think it’s working.”

Centenarians live longer and healthier

The longevity genetics of centenarians are worth studying, says Barzilai, because not only do they live longer, they usually also stay healthier for longer, and spend less time sick in their final years.

“That’s what we want to achieve – we want people to stay healthy for as long as possible and then die. So we’re going to make a tenfold increase in the number of centenarians that have been sequenced, and we want to find all the longevity genes that allow those people to get over the age of 100 without diseases.”

To support a scale-up of this magnitude, recruitment of centenarians and their offspring will be conducted online, with DNA collection kits sent out and returned by mail.

“There’s a lot of technology that we’re going to use to make it possible to access all these centenarians, their offspring and their grandchildren, so we’re testing to find the best approach,” says Barzilai. “We’re aiming to have 750 samples by the end of the year, see what worked, and then do an acceleration phase that will probably take a couple of years.”

TAME trial update

The longevity field has been waiting with bated breath for the TAME trial to begin. Through a series of nationwide, six-year clinical trials at 14 research institutions across the United States, TAME will study more than 3,000 older adults to explore whether taking metformin has an impact on aging.

“When you come into the TAME trial, we don’t care what disease you have, and we don’t care which disease you’re going to get,” says Barzilai. “You’re going to get older, you’re likely going to get a disease or two, but for us, the specific disease means nothing – we’re agnostic. What we’re trying to do is to demonstrate an indication that will relate to the prevention of aging.

“Okay, the FDA won’t call it prevention of aging, but we’re basically talking about showing that a drug can take a cluster of age-related diseases and delay or postpone them. Whether that means we’re preventing aging or not, let’s leave that aside, but I believe that aging is the mother of all those diseases.”

While there are those in the longevity field that call for aging itself to be considered a disease, Barzilai doesn’t feel this is a helpful way to think of it.

“I’m 66 years old and I‘m in great shape, I don’t have any disease, so I don’t want to told I have a disease!” he says. “AARP and AFAR don’t want to call aging a disease – we should not be antagonising the people we’re trying to help.”

The COVID-19 pandemic hit the TAME trial hard, striking just as the project was about to commence, and putting things on hold.

“TAME isn’t going to start until we can be sure that this pandemic is over,” says Barzilai. “But we’re optimistic, the wheels are in motion, all the protocols are ready, and I hope that the first patients will be recruited this year.”