Existing obesity drugs could be used to tackle ageing as scientists try to improve healthy living into old age, experts said at a longevity science conference in Riyadh.
Reprogramming damaged cells, the development of therapeutics and using human data to better understand the ageing process were major breakthroughs discussed at the Global Healthspan Summit, hosted by the Hevolution Foundation in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday.
An international cohort of anti-ageing specialists, medics, scientists and investors are in Riyadh for a two-day meeting to expand the field of longevity science.
The kingdom launched the non-profit Hevolution Foundation in 2021 as part of a key strategy in its Vision 2030 plan to increase the average life expectancy in the country from 74 to 80.
With the global population living over the age of 60 expected to double to about two billion by 2050, the issue of healthy ageing has become critical, experts said.
“Healthy ageing and longevity is at the forefront of our daily discussions and of our strategy,” said Dr Tareef Alaama, deputy minister for curative services at the Ministry of Health Saudi Arabia.
“Vision 2030 has put the health of the human being first, to utilise data and statistics to look at variability of ageing among regions.
“We can design actual interventions [which can] contribute in a cost-effective way to improve life expectancy of humans.”
Targets set by the United Nations to reduce premature deaths from non-communicable disease (NCD) by 2030 aim to ease the pressure on healthcare budgets.
Across the GCC, NCDs cost nations more than $97 billion a year as a result of absenteeism and economic inactivity.
World Health Organisation figures show that about 39 per cent of women and 29 per cent of men in Saudi Arabia are obese while more than 4.2 million adults have diabetes, according to the International Diabetes Federation.
Prof Brian Kennedy, an expert in biochemistry and physiology at NUS Singapore, said obesity and diabetes were key drivers in early ageing.
“There's a large overlap between metabolic dysfunction and ageing,” Prof Kennedy said at the conference.
“A lot of drugs like Metformin, beta blockers and statins are already in use in clinics and were chosen because they target risk factors for specific diseases.
“When we look back on some of the most successful drugs we've been using over the past few decades, we're going to realise we were already treating ageing.
“I'm pretty confident in what we use for people that have obesity or metabolic disease is also probably going to be helpful for ageing.
“The fundamental question is that in people with a normal glucose metabolism, will it improve their health span?”
Modern trends pushing populations to a more aged society will place a heavy burden on national economies, with fewer people fit to work and more requiring social care.
It is a familiar scenario around the world.
Changing demographics also play a role, driven by better health care to reduce disease, a falling birth rate and a culture in some countries of women leaving employment to care for elderly relatives.
The $1 billion Hevolution Foundation fund aims to further research into anti-ageing to reverse the trend.
Funding of almost $100 million was expected to be announced over the course of the two-day event to help accelerate scientific discoveries in the health sector.
Dr Peter Fedichev, is co-founder of Gero – a US biotech company working with Pfizer and Harvard University to create therapeutics against chronic disease to slow the human ageing process.
“Ageing is the most important risk factor to health,” he said.
“It contributes to lifespan and the probability of getting diseases.
“Practically we can characterise the progress of ageing very well, and there are lots of drugs that reduce effects of diseases and most probably also increase lifespan.”
Dr Fedichev said hundreds of millions of electronic medical records worldwide and more than 10 million known genotypes can be used by AI to understand why some people age faster than others.
“Some effects of ageing are not reversible, but some are,” he said.
“This data can help us understand which drugs will have effect later in life, so we actually aim to delay ageing, turning the last 10 years of life into 20.”
Damaged cells repaired
Life Bioscience, a US company using innovative therapeutics to target the biology of ageing, is researching partial epigenetic reprogramming, a form of medical science that repairs damaged cells that lead to disease.
A defective epigenome can contribute, along with genomic mutations, to the development of cancer and other illnesses. Research has shown that reprogramming can reset epigenetic ageing clocks, delaying the onset of disease.
“From a therapeutics perspective, we would consider ourselves a failure if all we did was treat symptoms,” chief executive of Life Biosciences, Jerry McLaughlin, said at the Global Healthspan Summit.
”We now strive to reverse disease and ultimately prevent it – that’s what's going to help humanity.
“As we age, our epigenome drifts, which can lead to unhealthy cells we now know are underlying factors in a number of age-related diseases.
“We're able to take these cells and return them to a more youthful state.
“When they're healthy, they're productive, efficient and resilient to disease.
“The fact we can now restore these cells to a more youthful and productive state is phenomenal.”