One of the oldest humans to ever live, Jeanne Calment claimed the secret to her longevity was chocolate, port wine and plenty of olive oil. For Emilio Flores Márquez, who lived to be 113, it was love that kept his heart beating.
Solving the puzzle to a longer and healthier life continues to confound us, but a new study might have found a key piece: antibodies that act like missiles, destroying old cells.
Researchers at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya in Spain and the UK’s University of Leicester have designed an antibody that can recognise specific proteins on the surface of aged or senescent cells.
Once deployed, it attaches itself to these cells, detonating a drug that removes only the proteins, minimising any potential side effects.
What is cellular senescence?
To fully understand this research, we need to first understand the biological mechanism known as cellular senescence, one of the main reasons we age.
This is when the division of damaged cells is stopped. It’s a process that can be extremely beneficial in slowing down the progress of conditions such as cancer, but can also “contribute to the development of diseases when the organism reaches old age,” phys.org reports.
As we grow older, more of our cells enter the state of senescence, which accumulate in tissues and affect their functioning.
In response, our immune system can no longer efficiently remove these cells.
A senolytic solution
To conduct this research, which was published in Scientific Reports, a monoclonal antibody was trained to recognise and attach itself to senescent cells, using a toxic load to destroy them — similar to how our antibodies spot germs and protect us.
These findings build on previous research using senolytic drugs, which have shown similar success in eliminating senescent cells and delaying age-related decline in animals.
“It has been shown that clearing old cells from tissues improves ageing in lab animals. This can be achieved with a type of drug called senolytics. The problem is that these drugs also do other things, and thus have important side effects,” Salvador Macip, an associate professor at the University of Leicester and lead on this study, said.
“Targeted senolytics, like our antibody, are second-generation drugs that would affect only the cells of interest and not the normal ones. This would reduce any unwanted effects and make these drugs more useful,” Macip told Euronews Next.
How could these learnings be applied?
“The first application could probably be a disease in which old cells accumulate in excess, such as Alzheimer’s, lung fibrosis or even cancer,” he said.
Looking longer term, it could even be used to prolong human health and lifespan.
“Eventually, with the right modifications this could work to foster healthy ageing, especially in the most frail.”
The quest for longevity
How do we live longer? What will keep us forever young? Increasing our lifespans remains one of science's biggest quests.
A recent study found that after people turn 108 years old, they have a 50 per cent chance of living another year, every year. This, theoretically, suggests there is no limit to the human lifespan - although many biologists disagree.
Tech billionaires are also seeking the elixir to life, with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos reportedly investing in a Silicon Valley startup that is focused on researching how cells age and how to reverse the process.
“I think we are very close to seeing the first true anti-ageing drugs reaching patients,” Macip said.
“There are many different avenues being explored, including our targeted senolytics, and one or more of them are likely to be ready to use perhaps within a decade. The first person that will take an anti-ageing pill has already been born, for sure.”