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Google’s life-extension spinoff teamed up with Ancestry to study 54 million family trees — and learned that a surprising factor helps determine how long we live

Google’s life-extension spinoff teamed up with Ancestry to study 54 million family trees — and learned that a surprising factor helps determine how long we live

Yulia Mayorova/Shutterstock
  • Genealogy and DNA site Ancestry once partnered with Google’s stealthy life-extension spinoff, a company called Calico, to study the genetics of longevity.
  • The new study suggests that our genes play less of a role in how long we live than previously believed.
  • Instead, traits and behaviors that include everything from diet and exercise to friendliness appear to play a strong role in longevity.
  • But surprisingly, we still pass these traits on through generations – mostly by picking partners who look and act like us, the researchers suggest.

The road to achieving a long life is littered with hype. The usual life-extension suspects include pricey pills and supplements; the peculiar involve infusions of young blood and chambers pumped with sub-zero temperatures.

Then there’s science. And one scientific factor that has long been presumed to dictate much of how long we live is our DNA. For decades, it was assumed that the genes we inherit from our parents explain anywhere from 15% to 30% of the variations in longevity that are observed between people.

But a new study that came from quiet collaboration between genetics company Ancestry and a Google life-extension spinoff called Calico suggests that our genes play less of a role in our lifespan than we thought.

Instead, traits and behaviors that include everything from diet and exercise to friendliness appears to play a strong role in longevity. Surprisingly, we still pass these traits on through generations – mostly by picking partners who look and act like us, the researchers report.

In essence, the findings suggest that people effectively transfer longevity from one generation to the next much in the same way that wealth and socioeconomic status are passed from parents to children: by choosing partners with attitudes and attributes that mirror our own, regardless of how different their DNA may be.

Picking partners who act and think like us

older people

seyfettin dincturk / Unsplash

For decades, researchers studying longevity and genetics had estimated that the genes we inherit from our parents play a significant role in determining how long we live. Previous studies suggested that genes account for as much as 30% of the total variability in lifespan between individuals.

But the new study from Ancestry and Calico indicates that our DNA may be much less important in determining longevity than traits and behaviors like diet, exercise, and personality. After looking at data from more than 54 million family trees and the birth and death information for over 400 million individuals, the researchers concluded that our DNA accounts for less than 10% of lifespan variability.

Instead, we pass on longevity through generations by choosing partners whose attitudes and attributes look much like our own. In research parlance, that’s known as “assortative mating.”

“The true heritability of human longevity for birth cohorts across the 1800s and early 1900s was well below 10%, and … has been generally overestimated due to the effect of assortative mating,” the scientists wrote.

Put another way, we tend to pick partners with attitudes and attributes – from eating and exercising to friendliness – that mirror our own. And as a result, we tend to live similar amounts of time, and have children who do as well.

How friendly we are and how often we work out may play a stronger role in our longevity than our DNA

woman running jogging exercise


Previous studies shed light on how important lifestyle factors are when it comes to how long we live. In a recent study published in the journal Circulation, for example, scientists pinpointed five lifestyle factors that appear to be linked with a significantly longer lifespan, judging by the outcomes of two long-term studies that involved about 123,000 adults.

People in the study who lived long lives tended to:

  • Do at least 30 minutes of cardio exercise every day.
  • Eat a Mediterranean diet.
  • Never smoke.
  • Stick to a healthy body weight.
  • Drink no more than 1-2 alcoholic beverages a day.

As part of several other recent studies, scientists have uncovered a handful of personality traits that also appear to be strongly linked to longer-than-average lives. They include:

Taken together, the findings suggest that how long we live may be less a matter of what we’re born with than the circumstances in which we live and the choices that we make. Those choices, as the Ancestry and Google researchers acknowledge in their new paper, tend to be based on everything from social status to wealth and then, just like genetics, passed on from one generation to the next.

Certain exercises help you live longer than others

Certain exercises help you live longer than others

Any exercise can help you live longer, but new research shows some exercises can help you live longer than others.

“And the study actually found that the team sports, the sports where you had some social connectivity, actually produced a greater longevity than those individual sports,” says Dr Ed Laskowski, co-director of Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine.

Dr Laskowski says a recent study shows people who play social sports like tennis or soccer tend to live longer than those who participate in individual sports like swimming or running.

But even among social sports, racquet sports like tennis appear to extend life the most.

He thinks one possible reason is that racquet sports are great for what’s known as interval training.

“If you’re playing a point, you may have 30 seconds of very intense activity followed by a recovery period,” Dr Laskowski says.

“So we’re finding that type of activity is very efficient at training the body, and a lot of times those … short bouts of more intense activity produce greater efficiency and actually a greater training effect.”

But Dr Laskowski says if running or swimming alone is your thing, stick to it. You’ll still live longer than without exercise.

But, if you take up a racquet sport like tennis, one study says you may live even longer. – Mayo Clinic News Network/Tribune News Service

Investors are pouring money into startups that are trying to find a cure for aging

Investors are pouring money into startups that are trying to find a cure for aging

Longevity Fund's Laura Deming

Longevity Fund’s Laura Deming
YouTube/Hello Tomorrow
  • A recent report published by CB Insights shows that funding for aging-related companies has far surpassed previous years.
  • It comes at a time where scientists are understanding more about how humans age and how targeting different elements of aging could slow the progression of diseases like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.
  • Here are the major venture firms, investors, and pharmaceutical companies putting money into advancing anti-aging research and treatments.

Funding in the anti-aging field is at an all-time high.

Investors have bet $850 million on aging and longevity startups so far this year, according to a recent CB Insights report. There’s been tremendous growth recently. That’s up from $324 million last year, and almost nothing before 2016.

The burgeoning interest in anti-aging treatments has been fueled by growing scientific knowledge about how the aging process works. In fact, in 2013, the journal Cell published a paper that outlined the nine key biologic hallmarks implicated in aging.

Since then, scientists have been working to develop drugs to tackle specific features of aging. Even the National Institutes of Health carved out a department dedicated to aging research. NIH believes that aging is the common factor underlying diseases like Alzheimer’s, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.

By solving aging, scientists could in turn create a universal cure for all of these diseases, the thinking goes.

More funding translates to greater capacity for research and more clinical trials. In 2015, there was a jump in the number of clinical trials targeting aging, and over the last 3 years, that number has held steady around that new high.

clinical trials aging

CB Insights

A record amount of funding flowed into companies involved in the aging area this year, according to the report. This includes Samumed’s recent fundraising round that raised $438 million. The company wants to use stem cells to regenerate hair, skin, bones, and joints. Their lead product is a treatment for osteoarthritis.

One notable venture capital firm investing in the longevity space is The Longevity Fund headed by 24-year-old Laura Deming, according to the report. It manages $37 million, and to date the the companies it has invested in have gone on to raise a combined $500 million.

Longevity Fund has invested in Unity Biotechnology, which spun out from Mayo Clinic. Its research into a class of drugs called senolytics, which kill off zombie-like pre-cancerous cells that accumulate in aged and damaged tissue, entered human trials in June and has the potential to disrupt multibillion-dollar franchises like AbbVie’s Humira and Amgen’s Enbrel, according to analysts at Citi. Unity is also backed by Jeff Bezos.

funding activity longevity

CB Insights

Kizoo Technology Ventures has invested in four longevity startups since 2013, according to the report. Of these, a notable one is Elevian, which is also backed by Harvard.

British billionaire Jim Mellon is also a prominent angel investor in aging-related startups, according to CB Insights, backing companies including Juvenescence, Insilico Medicine, and AgeX Therapeutics.

Of the major pharmaceutical companies, Novartis and Celgene are the two main ones investing in aging research.

Novartis recently conducted a study on a drug similar to rapamycin, to see how it affected elderly patients’ immune response and risk for infection. The results showed that the patients’ rate of respiratory infections went down by more than 65% during winter cold and flu season. The research and the subsequent drugs are being developed by spin-off company resTORbio, in which Novartis has a 15% stake.

Celgene also had a spin-off of its own: Celularity, which wants to use placental stem cells to promote longevity and treat conditions like cancer and autoimmune disease. The startup raised $250 million in February.

See more coverage from the anti-aging arena:

A new startup backed by an anti-aging wunderkind is taking cues from animal hibernation to help humans recover from heart attacks and strokes

A new startup backed by an anti-aging wunderkind is taking cues from animal hibernation to help humans recover from heart attacks and strokes

Flickr/Tambako The Jaguar
  • Fauna Bio, a new biopharmaceutical startup backed by venture capitalist Laura Deming, is researching hibernating animals to unveil clues about how the human body can protect itself in emergency medical conditions like trauma, heart attack, and stroke.
  • Hibernating animals have the ability to manipulate their metabolic rates, control blood flow levels, protect tissues against damage, and put on and lose a large amount of weight safely.
  • The company is working to re-create a hibernation-like state in patients by using a combination of repurposed drugs that are used now for other indications, and natural compounds like melatonin.

Hibernation allows bears to sleep through entire winters – now a new startup wants to replicate this state in humans to help protect the body against severe injuries.

Ashley Zehnder, Katie Grabek, and Linda Goodman started Fauna Bio in June after they met studying different, but very complementary projects at a post-doctoral lab in Stanford.

Their company is backed by 24-year-old venture capitalist Laura Deming, who runs The Longevity Fund, which principally invests in aging-related research and discoveries.

Hibernating animals are excellent at healing themselves after suffering the equivalent of a heart attack or a stroke. The reason is because these animals are adept at manipulating their metabolism.

Hibernation as a trait can be a spectrum. True hibernators, like bears, drop their body temperature by 2-6°C for 6-9 months.

Smaller animals, like pet hamsters, go into something called torpor, which is a light form of hibernation that can occur daily. Their small size forces them to lower their body temperature more drastically in order to achieve the same metabolic processes. By proxy, they have to re-warm their bodies more periodically.

This dynamic physiology allows them to control blood flow to their heart, function in low oxygen settings (hypoxia), and protect tissues against damage and deterioration.

The Fauna team is mapping and analyzing hibernators’ RNA and DNA, and linking important genes into a network that can be activated pharmacologically. These genes span across networks in charge of energy metabolism, circadian rhythm, and insulin management.

These also overlap with the mTOR, one of the pivotal pathways implicated in aging, and AMP Kinase, a cellular metabolic pathway that’s activated by diabetes drug Metformin.

How hibernation can improve medical outcomes in emergency rooms

Emergency rooms use therapeutic hypothermia to lower patient metabolic rates and improve their survival rates in cases of traumatic brain injury, strokes, and heart attacks. This cools the body artificially from outside inwards.

“We’re forcing the body to cool when it doesn’t really want to, and that causes problems. It causes deficiencies in immune function so people get really bad pneumonia, they have issues with blood clotting,” Zehnder told Business Insider. “Part of what we’re doing is trying to figure out what are the exact initiating factors to be able to allow you to lower metabolic rate, without having to be cooled from the outside. That’s something a lot of the model hibernators do.”

Mimicking short term hibernation or creating a synthetic torpor – accounting for caveats like maintaining immune function, preventing blood clots, and stopping muscle deterioration – can help patients safely cool, heal, and re-warm. Heart attack patients can recover without suffering heart damage, and stroke therapy can be enhanced.

It can also be given long-term to patients with diabetes or silent ischemic heart attacks to resist damage from severe cardiac or metabolic events.

Further research can aid obese patients in losing weight safely, since hibernators have mastered the craft.

“We have a couple of avenues for advancing the work that we’re doing for human trials,” Zehnder said. “Each of those have different development paths and different levels of capital efficiency.” These include repurposing drugs that are already on the market, using natural compounds, and inventing new drugs.

In a recent experiment, combining the natural compounds beta-hydroxybutyrate and melatonin improved survival in animals suffering from a 60% blood loss. This combination will enter human trials sometime this year as a form of trauma therapy.

Currently, the company’s 12-18 month timeline involves a mix of experiments that they’re kicking off in the following weeks. One or two of the products will advance to pre-approval stages by late 2019.

“It’s a great time to be doing this type of work,” Zehnder said. “We’re really sitting on the precipice of being able to take advantage of new genetic drug discovery tools.”

See also:

‘There is no reality here’: Researchers whose work inspired a startup to charge $8,000 to fill patients’ veins with young blood say it’s putting lives at risk

‘There is no reality here’: Researchers whose work inspired a startup to charge $8,000 to fill patients’ veins with young blood say it’s putting lives at risk

A bag of red blood cells.

A bag of red blood cells.
Joern Pollex/Getty Images
  • A startup called Ambrosia Medical that charges $8,000 to fill your veins with the blood of young people plans to launch its first clinic in New York City at the end of this year.
  • Researchers who study blood transfusions called the procedure “dangerous” and said the idea behind it is based on “incorrect interpretations” of their work.
  • Founded by Stanford graduate Jesse Karmazin, the company recently completed the first clinical trial designed to assess the benefits of young blood transfusions. Those results have not been published.

Does young blood hold the keys to a long and healthy life? Startup founder and and Stanford Medical graduate Jesse Karmazin believes it might, so he launched a startup called Ambrosia Medical that fills older people’s veins with fresh blood from young donors.

But researchers who study the procedure say it poses major risks for patients, including an elevated risk of developing several serious conditions later in life, such as graft-versus-host disease, which can occur when transfused blood cells attack the patient’s own cells, and transfusion-associated lung injury.

Irina and Michael Conboy, two University of California at Berkeley researchers who’ve published research on young blood transfusions in mice, called Ambrosia’s plans “dangerous.”

“They quite likely could inflict bodily harm,” Irina Conboy told Business Insider.

The Conboys’ concern stems from an awareness of what happens in the body when it receives foreign blood from a donor.

“It is well known in the medical community – and this is also the reason we don’t do transfusions frequently – that in 50% of patients there are very bad side effects. You are being infused with somebody else’s blood and it doesn’t match,” Conboy said. “That unleashes a strong immune reaction.”

Karmazin told Business Insider that the Conboys’ statements “are not supported by data or clinical experience.”

“Millions of plasma transfusions are performed safely in the US each year and the FDA monitors the safety of the blood supply and transfusions closely. We agree with the Conboys that exposure to young plasma has potential beneficial effects. Further research in this field at Stanford and Harvard, amongst other institutions, indicates that ‘blood dilution’ is not responsible for the observed effects, so it is not clear what the basis for that statement is.”

The first clinical trial of its kind


Getty Images/Joern Pollex

In 2017, Ambrosia enrolled people in the first US clinical trial designed to find out what happens when the veins of adults are filled with blood from the young.

While the results of that study have not yet been made public, Karmazin told Business Insider the results were “really positive.”

Because blood transfusions are already approved by the Food and Drug Administration, Ambrosia’s approach has the green-light to continue as an off-label treatment. There appears to be significant interest: since putting up its website last week, the company has received roughly 100 inquiries about how to get the treatment, David Cavalier, Ambrosia’s chief operating officer, told Business Insider. That led to the creation of the company’s first waiting list, Cavalier said.

“So many people were reaching out to us that we wanted to make a simple way for them to be added to the list,” Cavalier said.

With that in mind, Cavalier and Karmazin are currently scouting a number of potential clinic locations in New York City and organizing talks with potential investors. They hope to open the facility by the end of this year.

“New York would be the flagship location,” Karmazin said.

Blood tranfusions are already approved by federal regulators, so Ambrosia does not need to demonstrate that its treatment carries significant benefits before offering it to customers.

So far, the company has already infused close to 150 patients ranging in age from 35 to 92 with the blood of young donors, Cavalier said. Of those, 81 were participants in their clinical trial.

The trial, which involved giving patients 1.5 liters of plasma from a donor between the ages of 16 and 25 over two days, was conducted with physician David Wright, who owns a private intravenous-therapy center in Monterey, California. Before and after the infusions, participants’ blood was tested for a handful of biomarkers, or measurable biological substances and processes that are thought to provide a snapshot of health and disease.

People in the trial paid $8,000 to participate. The company hasn’t settled on a commercial pricetag for the procedure, Karmazin said.

Young blood and anti-aging: ‘There’s no reality here’

Conboy’s research was one of a handful of studies that initially inspired Karmazin to pursue young blood transfusions for anti-aging benefits.

But she told Business Insider that Karmazin’s work was based on an “incorrect interpretation.”

“Not only is it incorrect, it’s dangerous,” Conboy said.

In 2005, Conboy pioneered a study using parabiosis, a 150-year-old surgical technique that connects the veins of two living animals, to see whether the blood from a younger mouse could have benefits on an older mouse.

And while she did observe some benefits as a result of the procedure, she pointed out to Business Insider that the animals weren’t simply swapping blood – the older rodent was also reaping the benefits of the younger one’s more vibrant internal organs and circulatory system too. Conboy believes that – not the young blood itself – is likely what accounted for the positive effects she saw.

“When old and young mice are sutured together they share organs too – including their kidneys and all the important filtering organs,” Conboy told Business Insider. “Imagine you had a new liver. You’d probably see benefits too.”

Conboy followed up that work with a more recent study in 2016 to see what would happen if she merely exchanged the rodents’ blood without connecting their bodies in any way. She found that while the muscle tissue in the older mice appeared to benefit slightly from the younger blood, they still couldn’t say for sure that these modest benefits were coming from the young blood itself. After all, the experiment had also fundamentally changed the older mouse blood by diluting it.

“Something about the old blood seemed to be having a negative effect, yes, but young blood was not capable of rejuvenation,” Conboy said.

Michael Conboy said part of the problem is simply the fact that there’s too much old blood for the young blood to have a substantial effect on its own.

“Is there really something in the young blood that would override all the negative effects from the old blood?” Conboy said. “Until someone repeats that I’m not sure that I believe it. Even scientists with the best of intentions can observe something that’s a fluke.”

Meanwhile, the Conboys said there are substantial risks with giving older people the young blood of donors. Those include a heightened immune response which is triggered with increasing magnitude every time the procedure is completed.

A 2012 study published in the journal Transfusion outlines the risks of blood transfusions and includes these risks, as does published work from the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

“Every time you do it you’re magnifying your immune response,” Michael Conboy said. “Reputable physicians who do this for life-threatening conditions know this risk.”

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