Dr. Nir Barzilai is the Director of the Institute for Ageing Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University in New York. He has discovered the first longevity gene in humans, and is heading further research on genetic determinants of lifespan. He has published over 160 peer-reviewed papers and has won several prestigious awards for his contributions in elucidating metabolic and genetic mechanisms of aging.
Dr. Barzilai recently suggested that ageing should be treated as a disease, and companies are developing a curative drug based on his findings. He hopes testing will begin in 2012, and the drug will be made available in 5-10 years. In this exclusive interview with Nandini Krishnan, Dr. Barzilai elaborates on his theory and the implications of prolonging life through medication. In other words, ageing gracefully.
Could you tell us what the premise of your research is, and how you arrived at the theory that ageing is a disease?
Well, I wouldn't call it my theory. The reason I'm doing research is that if you look at all the diseases that people are dying from, like heart disease or cancer or Alzheimer's or diabetes, the number one risk for contracting them is age. So, when we go from age 50 to age 80, the risk of getting one of these diseases increases in logarithmic progression, not linear. It's not ten percent or twofold, but tenfold and then hundred fold.
So we're saying that if we could decrease the rate of ageing, we would prevent not just one disease, but all age-related diseases. For example, now we know how to prevent and treat heart disease. But you find those people get other diseases because we are not treating the ageing itself.
So, you believe ageing is a disease, which can be checked. But can it be prevented? Or, as Shakespeare said: "By medicine life may be prolonged, yet death will seize the doctor too.''
Well, you know what I believe is - and this belief is shared by nearly everyone I've asked - that humans age at different rates. My question is, if so, how do we learn something about the rate at which people are ageing, and how do we use the biology of that to strategise a treatment? But there are some misperceptions.
First, it is not like we're creating a fountain of youth. We're not going to take an old body and turn it into a young one, not in our lifetime.
Second, people ask me okay, how about living 300-400 years? How about ageing so slowly you just live forever? Well, our body is probably designed to live about 100 years. The oldest person that ever lived, that we know for certain, lived 122 years. So the capacity of our body is to live maybe 100-120 years. So I think that's the range we can talk about.
Some people think my research is about living to 100. But that's not true either, because what I'm really after is to prevent age-related diseases and improve the quality of life. And if we have a drug like that, the side-effect will be longevity. But we're not aiming at that. We're just conducting an experiment to see what causes age-related diseases and design a treatment for that.
Image: Dr. Nir Barzilai, Director, Institute for Ageing Research, Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Image subject to copyright.