The science of immortality: In 1 year, skin made in a lab, in 20 years ...

Editing of our DNA and wearing lab-grown skin are some of the ways we will be living - and looking - better in coming decades, says Anna Magee.
A silicone-based polymer 'second skin' covers eye bags and wrinkles. Photo / Computer generated image
A silicone-based polymer 'second skin' covers eye bags and wrinkles. Photo / Computer generated image

Available in a year:

Skin made in a lab

It's an exciting idea for those of us who seem to find a new wrinkle every day: a film applied to the face or body as a thin, transparent layer, making skin look younger.

The new silicone-based polymer film, dubbed "second skin", was developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). After tests, researchers reported it covered eye bags and wrinkles, making skin look smoother and firmer. It is applied as two creams that dry into a film and can be peeled off and -discarded 24 hours later.

One who has tried it is Dr David Agus, an anti-ageing specialist, professor of medicine and engineering at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine and author of The Lucky Years: How to Thrive in the Brave New World of Health.

"The bags under my eyes went away instantly, I looked rested and people were telling me I looked amazing," he says. "There have been many attempts to try to create skin in a lab but so far it wasn't comfortable, it didn't breathe well and didn't last more than a few hours. This is probably the most promising result we've seen."

It paves the way not only for a revolution in cosmetic treatment, but also for the delivery of medicines to the skin that can be slowly absorbed to treat wounds or illnesses.

The treatment was co-developed with a cosmetics company and although the MIT researchers refused to speculate on when the treatment might become available, Agus, who wasn't involved in the research, says: "My gut feeling is we'll see it some time in 2017."

In three to five years:

Editing disease out of your DNA

Having your DNA genetically modified or "edited" could be available within five years, says Agus. Last year, biotech company Editas Medicine announced plans to genetically edit the DNA of patients suffering from a genetic condition that prevents the normal functioning of the retina. The treatment is possible thanks to new cutting-edge gene-editing technology called Crispr, (Clustered, Regularly Interspaced, Short Palindromic Repeats). The technology harnesses a naturally occurring defence mechanism used by bacteria to erase mutated areas of DNA.

"Crispr acts like scissors to cut out defective pieces of DNA so they can be replaced with other pieces of DNA," says Agus.

"Using this technique, researchers have managed to tweak the genes in fish that affect how they age. It offers hope of finding treatments that can help us age slower and live longer."

But there are ethical concerns, says Agus. "The technology could be potentially used to control qualities such as intelligence, athleticism and beauty, and we don't know what revising the human genome to create permanent genetic modifications could mean for future generations."

In 10 years or more:

An anti-ageing pill

New anti-ageing potions are launched every day, from a new brand of gin -- aptly named Anti-AGin -- distilled with drinkable collagen to help roll back the years, to Esthechoc, dark chocolate developed by Cambridge scientists promising to keep skin looking youthful.

But although a bona fide proven pill that could add years to our lives is not yet a reality, it's on the way, says UCL's DrNazif Alic, most likely in the form of drugs currently available for other conditions that in trials have been shown to have an anti-ageing effect.

In June last year, Alic's team found fruit flies given a cancer drug lived 12 per cent longer than average and, last month, another UCL team found the drug lithium -- routinely prescribed for bipolar disorder -- could lead to a lifespan increased by up to 18 per cent.

Meanwhile, a medicine called rapamycin, used to suppress the immune system in transplant patients, has been shown in mice trials to prolong life by 38 per cent.

In a study last month on dogs (see story, right), it improved their heart functionality. Although its use as an anti-ageing drug is more than a decade off, Alic says rapamycin has been shown in humans to help vaccine responses in the elderly.

"That's a positive effect on which we could base potential treatment," he says. But it is no wonder drug, he says, and side-effects include inflammation of the testicles and suppression of the immune system.

In 20 years or more:

Lab-grown hearts and kidneys

In 2008, the world was stunned when scientists at Bristol University grew a windpipe from stem cells in a laboratory and transplanted it into a woman who, eight years later, is alive and well, windpipe functioning and intact.

Stem cells are "master cells" that can be manipulated in the laboratory to become other cells in the body. There are two types -- adult stem cells, which can repair the same tissues they're found in, taken from skin, bone marrow, fat or other parts of the body, and embryonic stem cells, from embryos.

As well as windpipes, regenerative medicine specialists have successfully used adult stem cell therapy to treat urinary incontinence and to grow human muscle, bone and ear tissue, although not yet on a large scale.

What's more exciting, says Dr Sanjay Sinha, senior researcher for the British Heart Foundation and cardiologist at the Cambridge Stem Cell Institute, is the use of embryonic stem cells, as these can grow into any cell in the body.

It's a "much more powerful approach," he says, especially when it comes to building larger organs such as kidneys and hearts that don't usually work with adult stem cells.

It's a long way off, as embryonic stem cell research is tightly regulated. "This is what embryonic stem cells promise, but it could be two decades or more before such an organ is implanted into a patient."

What could this mean for our generation?

"Hypothetically, in 20 or so years, someone with kidney or heart failure could get an organ that has been grown in a lab," says Sinha. That is instead of relying on donors, of which there is a chronic shortage. "There might be 20-30 different types available to suit the majority of the population, so problems of rejection would be combated."

- Daily Telegraph UK

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