“I am youth. I am joy. I am freedom!”

Peter Pan’s retort to Hook in the classic ‘Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up’ asserts youth as an essential identity marker. In under ten words, JM Barrie equates youth with joy and freedom. And we can see this obsession with youth everywhere. Our books, TV shows and conversations are littered with concerns about ageing and ways to live youth to its fullest.

This hope for longevity is nothing novel or unnatural for humans, but it seems that the longer we are living the more transfixed we become with youth. Countries with ageing populations search for solutions to prevent ageing, but there is something new in our approach to the problems of ageing – the advancement of genetics-related technology.

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We are no longer searching for mystical fountains of youth

A tool that has been in development for the last decade to decode ageing is the epigenetic clock. These clocks assess biomarkers in your body to identify your chronological and biological age. Biological age is different from your chronological age; instead of revealing the number of years you have been alive, it addresses how old you seem. The latter can be affected by environmental factors, such as diet, exercise, stress, smoking and drinking, leading people to age physiologically at different rates.

Just under five miles away from where JM Barrie wrote the first Peter Pan play, researchers are working on ways to achieve longevity, similar to the fictional character. The UCL Cancer Institute contributes to many dedicated medical genomics projects, for example, the IDEAL consortium, which carries out integrated research on the determinants of ageing and longevity with a focus on epigenetics. The institute also works on many genomic and epigenomic projects to identify biomarkers that help to predict cancer and advance personalised cancer therapies and medicines. While in the mind of most people cancer is not immediately associated with ageing, the older we get, the more common most types of cancers become. A 2019 study, ‘Epigenetic aging: more than just a clock when it comes to cancer’, recognises that ageing is one of the most significant risk factors for cancer. Ageing causes changes to occur at the molecular and cellular tissue level, both as a course of nature and our environment. The study goes on to look at epigenetic clocks and their potential use for cancer risk prediction.

The future

There is still scope for much further study on how epigenetic markers and clocks can help to lower cancer and other risks by promoting steps for healthy ageing. Many longevity companies have taken the vision of healthy ageing as their mission. Altos Labs, Juvenescence, Insilico Medicine, AgeX Therapeutics, Unity Biotechnology and Deep Longevity are just a handful of the companies leading the way in longevity technology. Deep Longevity, a US provider of artificial intelligence (AI) systems to track the rate of ageing, announced in July 2021 that its epigenetic clock (initially designed to use blood samples) was now able to use saliva samples. The development of the DeepMAge clock to use saliva presents a host of benefits, from a less intrusive and painful procedure for clients to potential cost-effectiveness. This is one example of longevity technology becoming increasingly consumer-friendly.

However, despite such developments, epigenetic clocks and similar longevity technology remain expensive. It is the space of billionaires, with individuals such as PayPal’s Peter Thiel and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos investing in longevity companies. The interest of billionaires in anti-ageing technology comes as no surprise, but it will be a growth market for all. As ageing populations continue to form, companies must focus on making their longevity technology accessible and prevent moves that will deepen our already-existing socio-economic divides or risk a troubling future with deteriorating patient access to healthcare.