On Sunday morning, November 9th, Dr. Stephen Coles intended to face a ballroom full of doctors at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, attendees of the 17th annual Age Management Medicine Group conference, and announce that his team of gerontology researchers had discovered a gene that allows a select group of human beings to live longer than anyone else on earth.
Coles is a gerontologist who teaches at UCLA and is executive director of a group of scientists and engineers dedicated to slowing and ultimately reversing human aging, called the Gerontology Research Group (GRG). He studies supercentenarians, people age 110 and older.
“When we interviewed these people we found they had very little in common,” said Coles, a few days before the scheduled announcement. “Some of them drink Jim Beam alcohol every day and some are tea-totallers. Some, surprisingly, smoke cigarettes, some have never smoked a day in their life. And some drink and smoke heavily, their lifestyles are terrible. But one thing they all have in common is longevity runs in the family.”
Over the past year, Coles said him and his team, which includes researchers based at Stanford University, and also at institutions in New York City, Boston and Italy, did full genome sequencing on 23 supercentenarians. By analyzing the results against the genomes of very old people, though not old enough to be supercentenarians, Coles was able to determine what he thinks separates the very old from the very, very old. The gene is found in all people, said Coles, but it’s the variant of the gene that is crucial for increased life expectancy.
While in the United States there are presently about 55,000 centenarians, there are only 60 supercentenarians, meaning a fair number of people live to 100, but there is some limiting factor that prevents people from living much beyond that age.
“My personal hypothesis for five years has been there is something that allows supercentenarians to go further,” said Coles, “but we have always been prepared to be disappointed.” But this time around he says his findings prove otherwise.
“Many drug companies are after me,” said Coles, “and I have been very secretive, because we have competitors on the east coast, and we don’t want them to have access to the gene too quickly, because then they will get it before us and scoop us.”
Coles spoke with Digital Dying last Friday, in an exclusive interview given prior to the announcement. The research is scheduled to be published on November 14 in the journal PLoS ONE, at 2:30pm Eastern Standard Time. “Then, all restrictions will be off,” said Coles, “and the New York Times science writers and all of those other people will be able to comment on the paper.”
When asked why all the secrecy, Dr. Coles shared his somewhat pessimistic thoughts on the role of economics in America’s science system.
“You are touching on a very deep philosophical question about how our country works,” he said. “We are a capitalist society, and many drug companies might convert this new knowledge to something they can make money off of.”
While other people may be after the results, it is the process of how Coles and his team obtained the purported results that makes their study so interesting.
Like Indiana Jones, but one interested in elderly humans and not ancient artifacts, Coles and his emissaries are continuously searching the planet for genomic treasure.
GRG has a list of about 40 international investigators responsible for reading local papers to sniff out possible supercentenarian cases. When promising cases are found GRG investigators must approach government officials and obtain the documents necessary to authenticate a supercentenarian claim. The GRG requires three things, a birth certificate or baptismal certificate, a marriage certificate and a photo ID.
Age exaggeration is common, people up their age in order to prematurely claim social security, garner respect, or just to play a joke.
“To make a 200 page story short, if people don’t have proof of when they are born and they get above 80 they tend to exaggerate,” said Robert Young, a Georgia-based GRG supercentenarian investigator. “Some people end up aging 10 years in one year. In other cases, we have had people turn out to be older than their mothers.”
This happened with a Maryland man named William Coates, who died in 2004 and whose nursing home records indicated he was 114, but an investigation into his birth records by Young revealed he was really only 92. “I mean, come on,” said Young. “You can’t be older than your mother!”
Analyzing 110 year old documents can be incredibly difficult. “These documents were written so long ago, it is almost like reading Shakespearean English,” said Coles. When the language isn’t English the task is even more difficult. GRG has validated supercentenarians in, among other countries, Italy, Jamaica, France, Japan and Brazil.
Once an individual has been confirmed a supercentenarian a GRG physician will arrange a visit to that person’s home and draw three milliliter-sized tubes of blood. “We have to go to them because they are so frail, they are usually in wheelchairs,” said Coles. A signed consent form is obtained, too.
For supercentenarians in foreign countries the blood must then be transported back to the United States. “It is tricky bringing blood samples from Europe and Brazil and Colombia back into the U.S.,” said Coles. “Our port of entry was Houston. We were very nervous about the customs officials.” But entering the United States went smoothly, although leaving certain countries with vials of supercentenarian blood has proved more difficult. “We had trouble on departure from Cali, Colombia,” said Coles. “Local gendarmes said, ‘What are these things?’ I said, ‘Don’t open them please!’”
“The whole field of life extension is fraught with charlatans,” added Coles. People out to make a quick buck, or a quick billion bucks. But Coles said he has other motivations.
“Our goal is not money, and it is not about doing some exclusive thing and sneakily selling our findings to a pharmaceutical company then backing out,” said Coles. “Our goal is doing the research for humanity and ideally having the discovery being available for anyone in the general public.”
“I think there is a big misconception with aging,” said Dr. Natalie Coles, a researcher with GRG and co-author on the PLoS ONE paper, as well as being Dr. Stephen Coles’ wife. “People tend to think this work only pertains to extending life expectancy, and relate it to overpopulation and resources, but it goes deeper than that. It is about finding the clock within the human body and finding what mechanisms turn that clock on and off.”
Cancer, for example, explained Natalie Coles, is an acceleration of that clock. “So the question,” she said, “is how can we manipulate the clock within the body to speed things up or slow things down, to stop cancer, stop Alzheimer’s.”
“This research,” she added, “opens up a world of possibilities.”