The Future of Aging

The human body isn’t built to last. Cells die, muscles break down, eyes weaken, joints buckle, and organs fail. But piece by piece, ambitious researchers around the city are devising ways to keep us up and running longer than ever.

Brain

The Problem: More than 5 million people are living with Alzheimer’s disease. By 2050, that number could multiply to nearly 14 million.

The Solution: The race is on to find a cure for Alzheimer’s. But wouldn’t it be better if we knew how to prevent it in the first place? Reisa Sperling, director of Brigham and Women’s Center for Alzheimer Research and Treatment, is leading the world’s first study to determine if an experimental antibody called solanezumab can stop slivers of amyloid beta proteins from clumping together in the brain, which is thought to lead to the disease. The undertaking, launched in 2014, includes 1,000 patients from all over the country and will span nearly four years.

Ears

The Problem: Nearly half of people over 75 are afflicted with some degree of hearing loss.

The Solution: At Cambridge’s Novartis campus, researchers are tinkering with a gene therapy that could one day restore hearing. Lloyd Klickstein, head of the New Indications Discovery Unit in Translational Medicine, explains that hair cells in the cochlea are linked with sensory neurons that help the brain process sound. “As you expose the cells to toxic drugs or Twisted Sister at too high a volume, you lose synapses and eventually you lose hair cells, and that causes difficulty hearing,” he says. Novartis’s therapy involves implanting genes that spur the growth of new inner-ear hair cells. The approach is in early-stage studies with humans, so don’t turn your headphones up to 11 just yet.

Eyes

The Problem: Being over 60 is a risk factor for glaucoma, one of the leading causes of irreversible blindness in the United States.

The Solution: There is no cure for glaucoma. While prescription eye drops can manage the symptoms, expecting senior citizens with vision problems to self-administer them has proven to be an inherent design flaw. That’s why doctors from Massachusetts Eye and Ear and Boston Children’s Hospital teamed up to develop a contact lens that can store the drug and slowly dispense it across the eye. The device has worked well in animal models of glaucoma, and the team is hoping to set up human studies in the near future.

Skin

The Problem: Your birthday suit is sensitive. Sunbathing, smoking, and boozing can all do damage.

The Solution: Imagine rubbing on a new layer of skin. A team led by MIT chemical engineer Daniel Anderson did just that, developing a silicone-based polymer that looks and acts like young skin. In early experiments, the “second skin,” which consists of two creams that are rubbed together on the epidermis, was able to reshape under-eye bags and helped the skin retain moisture. The material holds promise as a potential high-end cosmetic, and might even be useful as a long-lasting shield against the sun’s rays.

Heart

The Problem: Heart disease kills 610,000 people each year in America.

The Solution: The days of growing a customized, functioning replace- ment heart are fast approaching thanks to Mass General’s Ott Laboratory for Organ Engineering and Regeneration. The process involves washing a pig heart clean of all its cells, seeding it with a biological slurry from the patient that turns into specialized cardiac cells, and implanting it. “It’s still not very common to implant something that’s alive,” says lab director Harald Ott. “This is a really exciting field.” For now, tests are being conducted only on animals, but if Ott is successful, organ donor lists could be a thing of the past.

 

See more from our 2016 Top Doctors package.


Chris Sweeney Chris Sweeney, Senior Editor at Boston Magazine csweeney@bostonmagazine.com


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