Longevity, Regenerative Medicine and Quality of Life
Progress has its consequences.
Life expectancy in the U.S. nearly doubled during the 20th century and saw a ten-fold increase in the number of Americans age 65 or older. This number, currently at roughly 35 million, will double by 2050. The fastest growing segment of the U.S. population will be those Americans 85 or older.
The sheer size of the elder population necessitates that a growing share of resources be geared towards its care, but the benefits of living longer must be measured by the quality-of-life in doing so. Medicine can be credited for much of the increase in life expectancy, but medicine, as we know it, is not prepared to handle the overwhelming challenges that elder care will bring.
The Mayo Clinic believes that current approaches to evidence-based and palliative treatments will be unable to keep pace with the needs of aging population.
Chronic diseases in the elderly, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, arthritis, and the long-term consequences of diabetes and obesity, are lowering the quality of life and robbing the elderly of many of the benefits of living longer.
Fortunately, medicine as we know it is evolving, and the most profound change can be found in the arena of regenerative medicine.
Regenerative medicine seeks to utilize the body’s own healing processes to repair tissue or organ function lost due to age, disease or trauma. The body’s healing mechanisms are complex, and stimulating this range of processes is likely to hold the key to addressing multi-factorial and multi-faceted diseases, where a single molecule can fail.
For example, chimeric antigen receptor T-cell therapy (CAR-T) has witnessed tremendous scientific and financial interest over the last few years for its promise in cancer therapy. The process genetically re-engineers a patient’s own T cells to produce special receptors to recognize specific antigens on tumor cells within the patient’s body. This leverages the patient’s own defenses to attack the cancer.
Cancer treatment has traditionally consisted of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy, but researchers in the field anticipate that immunotherapies such as CAR-T may one day become standard.
Another advance consists of mesenchymal stromal cells (MSC) that are modified through environmental exposures to enhance their ability to treat a variety of indications common in aging populations, such as critical limb ischemia, muscle atrophy and cancer. These different conditions can stem from, or are associated with, such complex processes as decreased blood flow, inflammation, autoimmune disorders, or poorly functioning bone marrow.
The MSC, which can be sourced from placenta, adipose tissue, bone marrow or other sources, are capable of secreting many therapeutic proteins in response to cues from distressed or damaged tissues.
These exciting developments represent just a hint of the many advances being developed in labs all over the world. Earlier this month, the Alliance for Regenerative Medicine’s Stem Cell Meeting on the Mesa, key stakeholders in the field of regenerative medicine gathered to discuss how the field needs to continue to develop an ecosystem where scientific, legislative, medical, and financial interests work together to facilitate access to these life-enhancing discoveries.
Equally important is public understanding of the field. As regenerative medicine comes into its own, we should all take notice and appreciate what it could bring to our futures. It is vital not only to live longer, but also to live better. The Greatest Generation and the Baby Boomers are experiencing longer lives, but these extra years should be enjoyed, not endured.