Powerful behind-the-scenes engines are increasing the scientific knowledge base related to longevity at an ever-increasing pace. For example, the following bulleted items are drawn from articles in the February 1, 2009 issue of GEN: Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News, a biotechnology industry trade magazine.
One set of engines is to be found in the field of drug discovery.
- Research in RNAi (RNA interference) mechanisms, drugs and therapies, approaches that interfere with the role of RNA, the complement of DNA in the cell cycle. RNAi therapies work through selectively silencing genes, effectively interfering with entire gene-activation pathways, and are under development for a number of diseases. This research is forwarding our knowledge of cell cycle and gene activation path basics and the roles of micro RNAs in the human genome – key issues insofar as longevity is concerned.
- Epigenomics is of increasing importance as a research tool – the area that goes beyond genetics to look at what is going in the cell nucleus the DNA and RNA to determine characteristics of organisms and explain the vast complexity of what is going on in the biological world. Genes are located on chromosomes with large sequences of DNA separating them. Once this was called “junk DNA” and ignored, but we now know that junk contains secrets essential for life. Not only is there important information and variations in the genes and their variations (polymorphisms) but also in the rest of the DNA, and also in the RNA. Decoding the human genome was just the tip if the iceberg. Much of this basic research is also driven by the quest for drug discovery, looking for ways to interfere with cancer proliferation for example. Meanwhile, this research is starting to tell us more about how we are put together at the most basic level and what might help us live longer.
Another set of engines accelerating the rate of knowledge discovery is rapid and relentless underlying improvements in the tools for genetic and biotechnology research and engineering, the tools that make the above kinds of life-science research possible. There is constant improvement in capacity along with cost decrease of gene microarray chips, chips that allow simultaneous screening for hundreds or thousands of genes. There seems to be a version of Moore’s Law operating here. Moore’s Law says the capacity, power and cost-effectiveness of microprocessors doubles every 12-18 months, and that law that has consistently operated during the last 30 years. The same nature of increase in cost effectiveness is also true for gene sequencers. I can imagine going into Wallgreens or CVS, paying $14.99, spitting on a chip and getting back a printed and on-line profile checking 1500 of my genes for susceptibility to diseases. This could happen in 10 years, perhaps less. But there are many other improvements in bioresearch technology going on right now as well. For example:
· A new bioreactor design allows for the 3-D cultivation of cells, important to mimic the 3-D conditions in actual organisms.
· New molecular visualization technologies are allowing mapping of vascular cell surfaces in normal and pathological organs, mapping the locations of proteins and identifying key chemical biomarkers.
· New technologies are now available for visualizing signal transduction pathways and protein-protein interactions within a single cell, transcending the limits of Western Blotting, a traditional laboratory workhorse technique. Of course, the central issue for the more advanced theories of aging is further understanding critical cell signaling pathways.
Every month, GEN reports on developments similar to the above, so this is just a small sampler of the engines powering our increasing understanding of longevity.