The Gold Coast Bulletin - Gold Coast Eye - - FEATURE EYE - WORDS: DENISE RAWARD MAIN PHOTO: KIT WISE

It sounds like some­thing from the realms of science fic­tion but, at this very mo­ment, science is rac­ing to­wards a pill to “cure” old age. Far from be­ing a fact of life, some sci­en­tists now re­gard age­ing as a dis­ease to be pre­vented, even re­versed, with a drug or drugs that will elim­i­nate not only grow­ing old but the myr­iad dis­eases that go with it.

As­so­ci­ate Pro­fes­sor Derek Richard is a level-headed sort of bloke, a Scots­man who works from a re­search lab at­tached to the Queens­land Uni­ver­sity of Tech­nol­ogy, and says a drug to stop age­ing is con­ser­va­tively about 10 to 15 years away.

“We used to think of age­ing as a lin­ear path­way, a part of life,” he says.

“Then there was a key break­through, that the very thing that brought on age­ing, the dam­age to the ge­netic code, could be stopped, could even be re­versed, which meant that the dis­eases of age­ing never had to oc­cur.

“Once we had that hy­poth­e­sis, science saw age­ing in a whole new light.”

It ush­ered in a boom in anti-age­ing re­search around the world with Aus­tralian sci­en­tists at the fore­front of hit­ting on a cure for grow­ing old.

“That’s the head­line grab­ber,” As­so­ci­ate Pro­fes­sor Richard says. “But cer­tainly the achiev­able aim is for peo­ple to live health­ier lives for longer.

“Now that we know the root cause of age­ing and that it can be stopped, there are projects around the world all com­ing at it from dif­fer­ent an­gles and per­spec­tives but all reach­ing for the same pin­na­cle.”

In­deed, there are al­ready old mice in labs who are young again and sci­en­tists who are so con­fi­dent they’ve hit on the magic com­pound of youth, they are al­ready test­ing their dis­cov­er­ies on their own bod­ies.

At this stage, it seems there will be more than one magic pill.

Op­ti­mistic as­sess­ments of the hun­dred or so re­search projects un­der­way glob­ally es­ti­mate the first life-ex­ten­sion drugs will be on the mar­ket within three to four years with mul­ti­ple anti-age­ing medicines com­ing within the next decade.

As­so­ci­ate Pro­fes­sor Richard’s team is look­ing at age­ing and cancer.

They made head­lines around the sci­en­tific world in May with their dis­cov­ery that hu­man cells have a “su­per hero” protein that rushes in to re­pair dam­age to the ge­netic code which breaks down as we age.

They’re now look­ing at a drug to re­store and sup­port the ac­tiv­ity of that protein in age­ing bod­ies, to keep healthy cells be­hav­ing as if they are much younger than they are.

By the same to­ken, when the protein is blocked in de­fec­tive cancer cells, the cancer cells — in lab con­di­tions — die.

“Age­ing is a pro­grammed event in the hu­man body,” As­so­ci­ate Pro­fes­sor Richard says. “At 45, it de­lib­er­ately ramps down its own re­pair path­ways and the cancer risk in­creases, as do other dis­eases of age­ing.

“The dam­age to the ge­netic code man­i­fests in dif­fer­ent ways but it’s the same root cause and we believe we can stop that hap­pen­ing with a drug.”

Find­ings like these, that orig­i­nate in Aus­tralian uni­ver­sity re­search fa­cil­i­ties, have a habit of be­ing de­vel­oped and com­mer­cialised over­seas where fund­ing is more forth­com­ing.

One of the big road­blocks in at­tract­ing funds for anti-age­ing re­search is that, de­spite grow­ing sci­en­tific sen­ti­ment, gov­ern­ments still do not re­gard age­ing as a “dis­ease”.

Un­der cur­rent guide­lines, it is dis­eases that qual­ify for the lion’s share of gov­ern­ment re­search dol­lars. The QUT team is now look­ing for pri­vate back­ers to step in. In the mean­time, they’re ped­dling cof­fee and are soon to bring out a range of face creams.

An­other Aus­tralian-led project, a joint ven­ture be­tween the Uni­ver­sity of New South Wales and Har­vard, led by Syd­ney ge­neti­cist Pro­fes­sor David Sin­clair, is fur­ther along the road of get­ting its drug to mar­ket.

Pro­fes­sor Sin­clair es­ti­mates his anti-age­ing drug is about five years away. He and his fam­ily (and the fam­ily pets are al­ready tak­ing his mir­a­cle mol­e­cule (NMN) which can make old cells healthy, in­crease mus­cu­lar blood flow and has made the el­derly mice in his lab as spritely as the young­sters.

“It’s the equiv­a­lent of a 70-year-old be­com­ing a 30year-old again,” he says.

Far from spark­ing ri­val­ries be­tween the re­search groups, As­so­ci­ate Pro­fes­sor Richard says the two teams are very much re­search­ing the same science and col­lab­o­rate on each other’s find­ings.

“It fits in com­pletely with our work,” he says. “We are in very reg­u­lar con­tact.”

Al­ready there have been bold pre­dic­tions for the fu­ture. Pro­fes­sor Sin­clair has de­clared the first per­son to live to 150 has al­ready been born.

But the brave new fron­tier in science is not with­out its eth­i­cal alarm bells. How will the planet cope with in­creased hu­man life­span?

Anti-age­ing re­searchers have a ready an­swer for this. They are look­ing to in­crease “healthspan” rather than life­span, a safer claim in a field des­per­ate for re­spectable pri­vate back­ers to help get their find­ings to mar­ket. “We’re not look­ing for im­mor­tal­ity,” As­so­ci­ate Pro­fes­sor Richard says. “Where we are now, peo­ple can live for 10 to 15 years with chronic ill­ness.

“That places a huge strain on health bud­gets and that will only get worse as the pop­u­la­tion ages. These break­throughs have the abil­ity to ex­tend the healthy life of hu­mans, to stop dis­eases of age­ing from hap­pen­ing, to keep them health­ier for longer.”

It all sounds en­tirely rea­son­able, but what has science got to of­fer us in the mean­time un­til these life­ex­tend­ing drugs make it to mar­ket? As­so­ci­ate Pro­fes­sor Richard is clear cut. “A calo­rie-re­stricted diet is proved to slow age­ing,” he says. “Eat­ing meat makes you age faster but it has other ben­e­fits.

“Life­style choices ac­count for about a third of all can­cers. Smok­ing cig­a­rettes ac­cel­er­ates age­ing be­cause of the chem­i­cals in them. UV light from the sun dam­ages skin cells that also makes you age faster.”

The rest re­mains out­side the realms of ex­act science al­though there is much global re­search un­der­way on the anti-age­ing ef­fects of both diet and ex­er­cise — still our best bet to fight the clock, it seems, in this magic pill sort of world.


56-year-old Francesca (pic­tured left) bought her first bikini at 52 for a body build­ing com­pe­ti­tion her per­sonal trainer urged her to en­ter. “I’d never worn one be­fore,” she laughs. She said her own light-bulb mo­ment on the path to com­bat­ing age­ing came at 50 af­ter her son showed her pic­tures of how Asian women age.

“Ev­ery­one thinks we have good genes and can stay young look­ing but I thought of my mother’s friends and I re­alised I didn’t want to be like that so I started do­ing weight-bear­ing ex­er­cise,” she says.

In her first body build­ing com­pe­ti­tion, on the back of a 12-week chal­lenge pro­gram, she was up against a line-up of much younger women but came sec­ond. “That was it,” she says. “I thought maybe I can do this.” Four years later, her diet and ex­er­cise rou­tine is now the sub­ject of gen­tle teas­ing from her two sons, 25 and 24, (a doc­tor and an en­gi­neer, she proudly adds) but she says she hasn’t looked back.

“I look bet­ter now than I did in my 20s,” she says. “And my sons agree with that.”

When she’s pre­par­ing for a con­test, she steps up her weight ses­sions, some­times train­ing twice a day, and switches to a higher protein diet rich in chicken and fish. But it’s not how she lives ev­ery day.

“I love food and I still want a so­cial life so you have to find the bal­ance,” she says. “I believe in the 80/20 rule. I eat healthy most of the time but you have to en­joy life too.”

Francesca has made her mark on the lo­cal body­build­ing cir­cuit but her next goal is to com­pete in next month’s Mus­cle­ma­nia nat­u­ral body build­ing in­ter­na­tional event in Las Ve­gas. Her best ad­vice? “For­get age,” she says. “We’ve got to live life and love life. I’ve got a say­ing: when s**t is hap­pen­ing ev­ery day, you just keep go­ing and even­tu­ally that s**t turns into suc­cess.

“I have friends who com­plain that so­ci­ety doesn’t value older women but that’s be­cause we have to value our­selves. You can’t let your­self go.”


This 48-year-old Gold Coast grand­mother (pic­tured top left) hit the head­lines when she made the fi­nals of this year’s Miss Maxim con­test, knock­ing out hun­dreds of women less than half her age.

The sin­gle mother of four had breast aug­men­ta­tion 10 years ago but says she’s never had any other cos­metic work or used Botox or fillers on her face.

“I en­tered the com­pe­ti­tion to try to win the prize money for a friend who had a stroke,” she says.

“I don’t think I was re­ally pre­pared for the at­ten­tion it would bring.”

Gina now has more than 100,000 In­sta­gram fol­low­ers and has been dubbed the “world’s hottest grandma”. She says there are no real se­crets to her agede­fy­ing looks.

“I don’t drink cof­fee and I don’t drink al­co­hol,” she says. “Just half a glass af­fects me so I haven’t had al­co­hol in years.

“I grew up in New Zealand where we didn’t see a lot of sun and I sup­pose I’ve worn make-up ev­ery day from 15 so I don’t know if that makes a dif­fer­ence. I try not to use chem­i­cals and I’m a big fan of rose­hip oil.”

Gina is a firm be­liever that all women are beau­ti­ful and would like to send the mes­sage to younger women par­tic­u­larly to ac­cept their own beauty as they are.

“If my plat­form can do one thing, it would def­i­nitely be that,” she says.


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