In the 20th century, human life expectancy grew by 30 years, according to scientists.
That's the biggest life span boost, greater than in the previous 5,000 years combined. In part we have medical breakthroughs like penicillin and vaccines to thank. Another huge factor is that childbirth became much safer.
Robert Lanza, the chief scientific officer of Advanced Cell Technology in Worcester, Mass., believes further advancements in health and science will continue that pattern through the 21st century and beyond.
"We're really on the beginning of a new medical revolution. I think with new technologies -- going in and using the stem cells that we were starting to develop -- you could prolong lives to several hundred years," said Lanza.
Cloning and Telomeres
Lanza is one of the world's top cloning specialists and the first to clone endangered animals. He copied a gaur and a banteng -- both breeds of rare oxen -- obtaining their DNA from body parts that had been frozen for 20 years. After cloning herds of cows and comparing their DNA, Lanza studied their telomeres, a vital component to understanding aging in all living things.
"Telomeres are the body's aging clock," said Lanza. "The genetic makeup in our body consists basically of strands of DNA. Sort of like a shoestring. And at the end of these strands of DNA, there are these caps, the telomeres. So the telomeres get shorter and shorter every time the cell divides, until they get to a critical shortness, and the cell becomes old and decrepit and it dies."
He discovered the telomeres of the cows he cloned were longer than their biological parents' -- helping those cells live 50 percent longer. That meant they could live to be the oldest herd of cows on the planet. If this were applied to humans, we could potentially live to 180.
Lanza has no plans to try cloning entire human beings, but the discovery is an important piece of the puzzle of why our cells age.
"There's a consensus in the scientific community that it's wrong and scientifically unsafe to use this technology for reproductive purposes. Our goal is to basically clone cells in a petri dish so that we can create replacement parts for the body, to repair damaged tissue."
Stem Cells and Tissue Engineering
Lanza, also an expert in stem cell research, has successfully treated injured animals using embryonic stem cells grown in his laboratory.
"We've developed a technique where you can just take one cell, create these embryonic stem cells and not harm the embryo in any way, " said Lanza. "There's a new discovery that was just reported that we can actually take a skin cell, or even a cheek swab, and just turn it into stem cells directly in the laboratory."
Unlike embryonic stem cells, stem cells in adults are predetermined to grow into cells for certain parts of the body. No human embryos are harmed in the course of collecting stem cells.
"The adult body has stem cells in all of your tissues. We can get stem cells from fat, we can get them from your brain [and] we can get them from your skin. Throughout our body right now, we have stem cells that are repairing all of your vessels; they're repairing tissue in your brain. That's how you stay healthy. As you get older and cells die off, you need to replace them with new cells. "
For Lanza, embryonic stem cells are a solution to science because they are multipurpose in answering calls from all parts of the body.
"These are the body's master cells," said Lanza. "They're actually immortal. They grow forever. And we can turn them into virtually every cell in your body."
He sees the strong potential of stem cells in treating people suffering from Parkinson's, Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, atherosclerosis and strokes. He's even on the verge of research that could eliminate the need for blood donations.
"We're actually now able to grow an entire tube of blood cells from scratch from embryonic stem cells. And the beautiful thing about that is, if you start with one of the lines that's O negative, it's universal. It'll match everybody. So you won't have to worry about tissue typing."
And for Lanza, the potential of the research doesn't stop there but extends to creating organs.
"We can actually grow these up by the billions," he said. "So we can create, say for instance, an entire heart [or kidney] some day. And some day, if you get into an auto accident, we'll just take a skin cell and grow you up a new kidney.
"And it's not science fiction," he added. "We're doing this today. We've already grown up entire bladders that are in people."
Anthony Attala, director of the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest University, successfully implanted human bladders grown in a lab into seven patients.
He has used the patients' cells to grow the bladders so there was no risk of rejection. Thirty other patients began clinical trials last year to further study the approach.
Doris Taylor, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Cardiovascular Repair, sees a huge potential for stem cells in treating or possibly curing heart disease.
"There are thousands of people every year who need a donor heart, which is the only solution. And they don't get it. So we said,'what's the next option? We can use cells to maybe treat the problem. Can we use cells to cure the problem?'" said Taylor. "So in talking in the hallway, literally, we stood around and we said, you know, 'what do you need to build a heart?' You need cells. Well, we got cells. Stem Cells-R-Us."
Taylor went to work harvesting heart stem cells from rats. After injecting the heart stem cells in an empty heart framework, the cells knew where to go. A pacemaker got the heart pumping and made sure all the cells learned how to beat together.
"The coolest thing is, we put the electrodes on, we teach the heart what to do, we can turn them off and it keeps beating. It's phenomenal," said Taylor. "We've opened a door that's going to provide another tool for organ transplantation in the future."
David Sinclair, co-founder of Sirtris Pharmaceuticals in Cambridge, Mass., has found a protein in our bodies that could be the key to resetting our biological clocks.
He made the discovery by randomly testing tens of thousands of cells, searching for the chemical that would activate that protein -- resveratrol.
"We found them by accident. We stumbled upon this molecule from red wine. And when I looked at the computer, [I asked,] what is this resveratrol?" said Sinclair. "And [when I] found that it was in red wine … [well,] I almost fell off my chair. Because of course we have all heard that red wine is good for you."
But to see the benefits, you would need to drink about 1,000 bottles a day. Since that was not the solution, Sinclair went back to the lab and found a way to make resveratrol a thousand times more potent.
"What we have discovered is that resveratrol works on a gene, which is called SIR T1, and this is a gene, which controls the aging process," said Sinclair. "Resveratrol seeks out that gene and switches it on."
Sinclair tested these high doses of resveratrol on mice. When compared on treadmills side by side, the mouse, when given this intensified form of resveratrol, ran twice as far as the mouse who was not fed the molecule. The supplement had major health benefits as well.
"They were eating a high fat diet, a fatty diet, and they lived just as long as a lean, healthy mouse. They didn't get heart disease, cancer, even osteoporosis, and they lived 30 percent longer," he said.
Humans have the same exact gene that is activated by resveratrol, so Sinclair believed it could have similar benefits in people.
Realizing the blockbuster potential for his new pill based on an intensified and improved form of resveratrol, Sinclair teamed up with biotech entrepreneur Chris Westphal and together they raised more than $100 million for further research.
"I think we've passed the turning point in our understanding of the aging process, " said Sinclair.
"We think that we can increase healthy life span. So if you're in your 80s, you'll be behaving as if you were in your 50s."
In the first human trial, a form of resveratrol called SRT501 successfully treated type II diabetes, one of the major diseases of aging.
"The major killers of Western society are exactly the diseases that should be able to be treated with the drugs we're developing," Sinclair states.
He and Westphal plan to get regulatory approval from the Food and Drug Administration within five years.