Everyone knows you can’t turn back time… everyone, except for Alejandro Ocampo, Ph.D. – because that’s precisely what he and his colleagues at Ocampo Lab are working on.
Ocampo obtained his Ph.D. in 2012 from the University of Miami. Between 2013 and 2017, he carried out a postdoc with Juan Carlos Izpisua-Belmonte where he developed a novel technology to prevent the transmission of mitochondrial diseases and demonstrated the amelioration of age-associated hallmarks by partial cellular reprogramming.
In August 2018, he joined the University of Lausanne.
We spoke to him about his research and what a world without aging could mean.
Thank you so much for taking the time, Prof. Ocampo! We look forward to connecting with you about this fascinating topic.
Thank you for inviting me. It is my pleasure to discuss with you and your audience the work that we are doing in my laboratory.
Let’s perhaps start at the beginning, since our readers may not be familiar with the idea of cellular reprogramming. What is it the Ocampo Lab is all about and why could it be the key to reversing aging? To put it a little provocatively, will we all be immortal soon?
My laboratory is focused on better understanding the process of aging with the goal of developing therapeutic interventions that can slow down how we age.
We are especially interested in epigenetics, the mechanism by which your cells control how your genes are expressed and turned on and off. During life, this mechanism is dysregulated and we are investigating whether this dysregulation is responsible for the process of aging.
For us, aging is an epigenetic state that importantly might be reversible. In order to reverse it, we use a technology known as cellular reprogramming that has the capacity to reverse this dysregulated program back to a younger state.
Since aging is the major risk factor for most human diseases including others cancer, neurodegeneration, and diabetes, our research aims at slowing down the aging process with the goal of reducing the incidence of diseases.
In simple words and making an analogy to computers, your cells are like a computer where the DNA is the hardware and epigenetics is the software. With time and age, the software becomes dysregulated and slow. We can now use reprogramming to return an old computer back to a younger and better state.
Importantly, since aging is the major risk factor for most human diseases including among others cancer, neurodegeneration, and diabetes, our research aims at slowing down the aging process with the goal of reducing the incidence of diseases. Our goal is to extend the health span, the number of years that you are healthy, not to make people immortal.
Funding in aging research has increased immensely over the last few years. Why is that and what could it mean?
In my view, there are multiple factors that have contributed to the current increase in funding in this area. First, we are realizing that aging represents a major challenge for modern societies since the percentage of people above 65 years of age is dramatically increasing, and aging is the major risk factor for disease. Aging is a major problem.
Second, I think we have now solid scientific evidence in animal models that aging can be manipulated, slowed down, or even reversed.
Nevertheless, studying aging and developing therapeutic interventions for healthy aging is difficult and expensive, therefore I believe this increase in funding for research, especially in the private sector, is going to advance the field very rapidly.
The more resources you have committed to research on aging and the development of drugs, the faster, deeper, and longer you can go.
What are the main challenges in your research?
The first challenge is that aging is complex. It is probably one of the more complex processes that we observe in nature. Understanding a very complex process is sometimes very difficult. In this line, aging is multifactorial, it is not caused by a single thing, it is the result of a combination of factors and processes. You can observe many changes in your body as you get older, but understanding which of these changes are causing aging or just correlating with aging, cause or consequence, is a very difficult question. Therefore, if you don’t understand what is causing aging, it becomes very challenging to target and slows down aging.
In addition, aging is long. Humans have an average lifespan of around 80 years, even mice can live 2-3 years, therefore studying aging is long, difficult, and expensive. Consequently, if it was possible to run a clinical trial to test the effect of a drug on aging, this trial would take decades to be completed and be very expensive.
Lastly, I said if it was possible to run a clinical trial because right now, aging is not accepted as an indication by neither the FDA nor EMA – therefore no clinical trial can test the effect of a drug on aging.
From your perspective, how does investing play into your research? What role do investors play?
As it is so difficult, long, and expensive to study aging, funding is extremely important. The more resources you have committed to research on aging and the development of drugs, the faster, deeper, and longer you can go. I believe that in the upcoming decades, similar to what we are seeing with artificial intelligence, we are going to see private investment and companies playing a major role in this area of research compared to traditional public and academic structures.
Where do you see this field, and your own research, in ten years?
The field is advancing very very rapidly now and we are going to see major changes. In terms of science and research, I think we are going to continue to improve our understanding of aging and discover novel therapeutic strategies to prevent or slow down the process of aging in humans.
In addition, we are going to establish better biomarkers, like, for example, epigenetic clock, currently based on DNA methylation, that can tell us how a person is aging. These biomarkers will be critical for clinical trials since they will significantly help us to detect the effect of interventions in a shorter period of time.
I also think that we are going to see major changes in modern societies that are now facing the problem of aging. These changes will occur at multiple levels including individuals, countries, government, economies, and health systems. Changes are as fundamental as accepting that aging can be manipulated and that we might be able to live healthier and longer.
i-vest is first and foremost a platform about investing in your future, your values, and your goals. So we’d like to ask you to speculate a little about the implications of your work. Assuming we may all live much longer, healthier lives in the future, what might the implications of that be? How may life be different if we are better able to control aging?
This is a very complex question, but I would say that every single aspect of our life that is influenced by time and aging is going to change as a consequence of the progress in this field of research.
This will include, from a psychological perspective, how we think about aging and our time-limited life. Moreover, societies, countries, and all the structures within will change and will have to adapt to longer healthier lives. These will include health systems, education, employment, retirement systems. We might have different careers during our life, we might retire at a later age, we may only get sick very late in life, we may have the option to plan our lives in longer terms.
This is an amazing time to be alive and I believe that our path to healthier and longer lives has already started.
Thank you very much, Prof. Ocampo!
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