At a rather strange location for a medical announcement, the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, Dr. Florence Comite faced some of the best researchers in the field of aging. They gathered there for the 17th annual Age Management Medicine Group conference, and Dr. Comite had an exciting announcement to make: researchers have found a crucial gene responsible for aging.
The head of that team is Dr. Stephen Coles, a UCLA gerontologist has dedicated his life to studying supercentenarians – people who live to be 110 and older. He wanted to see what these people have in common, what makes them so special, and if this could be applied to other people.
“When we interviewed these people we found they had very little in common,” said Coles, a few days before the announcement. “Some of them drink Jim Beam alcohol every day and some are tea-totallers. Some, surprisingly, smoke cigarettes, some have never smoked a day in their life. And some drink and smoke heavily, their lifestyles are terrible. But one thing they all have in common is longevity runs in the family.”
This seems to indicate that it isn’t just lifestyle which makes a difference – genetics also plays a key role. This was good news for Coles and his team; it means that if they found the genes which are responsible for reaching great ages, they could figure out how this could be applied to others. Over the past year, Coles and his team, which includes researchers based at Stanford University, and also at institutions in New York City, Boston and Italy, did full genome sequencing on 23 supercentenarians. Using these results, they believe they figured out what separates the old people from the very old people – and this is a key difference.
In the US, there are over 55,000 people over 100 years old, but only 60 people over 110. Comite believes that one gene is responsible for this difference. The gene is found in all people, but it has a crucial variant which is responsible for increased life expectancy.
“My personal hypothesis for five years has been there is something that allows supercentenarians to go further,” said Coles, “but we have always been prepared to be disappointed.” Though there is nothing disappointing about his results, the finding is phenomenal, and has an army of pharmaceutical companies banging down his door.”
Naturally, there has been a great deal of interest from the private sector for this research, but Coles did his best to protect his research.
“Many drug companies are after me,” said Coles, “and I have been very secretive, because we have competitors on the east coast, and we don’t want them to have access to the gene too quickly, because then they will get it before us and scoop us.”
When asked why he was so secretive, Coles revealed a pessimistic, yet accurate view of the American medical system. Basically, people want to make money – and people working in big pharma companies even more so than others.
“You are touching on a very deep philosophical question about how our country works,” he said. “We are a capitalist society, and many drug companies might convert this new knowledge to something they can make money off of.”
His research is more valuable than money, he explains – it has the potential to do a great deal of good to humanity; this is not about selling “life extension”, but rather about understanding how aging works, and making things available for everybody.
“Our goal is not money, and it is not about doing some exclusive thing and sneakily selling our findings to a pharmaceutical company then backing out,” said Coles. “Our goal is doing the research for humanity and ideally having the discovery being available for anyone in the general public.”
While announced, the research hasn’t been published yet – it will be published on November 14, in the journal PLOS ONE. I’m pretty excited and can barely wait to read the actual research, but until I do, I’m also a bit skeptical. These are pretty bold claims the researchers are making – hopefully, they also have the science to back it up.
Edit: Corrected a factual error. Florence Comite was not involved in the study, she was just announcing the discovery at a conference where Dr. Coles couldn’t attend.
Andrei's background is in geophysics, and he's been fascinated by it ever since he was a child. Feeling that there is a gap between scientists and the general audience, he started ZME Science -- and the results are what you see today.