HOUSTON – As the saying goes, two things are certain in life: death and taxes. Sure, you can postpone your taxes a few months, but what if you could postpone death by a few decades?
The idea of stopping or even reversing the aging process seems farfetched, even for Hollywood, which is why 81-year-old Mary Ann Lewis isn't taking the idea too seriously.
"For my son that I live with, he thinks I'll live to be in my hundreds because of the exercise I do," Lewis said.
All the while, researchers are working on ways to reverse your age without exercise.
If it sounds like mad science, consider this: Cell therapy is already happening.
At the cellular level, inside regenerative medicine labs, like one at Houston Methodist Hospital, they say they are reversing the age of cells.
The way they're doing it is by examining telomeres. Telomeres protect our body's chromosomes from deteriorating.
Scientists say the shorter those telomeres get, the worse they function. If you're stressed, diabetic or have high blood pressure, you're already eroding your telomeres.
The theory on ways to reverse the aging process is to modify the telomeres.
"In the first few days after we're born, we have the ability to rebuild our heart," West explained. "We have the ability to repair almost everything in the body scarlessly ... Turning that ability back on is called induced tissue regeneration. I think it's the next frontier in medicine."
West said he's less concerned about making people appear more youthful or keep from going bald and more focused on easing the burden of aging on society. "Many of us in the aging research field have our sights set on the chronic, degenerative diseases of aging that are costing our country trillions of dollars, (for) which we don't have allocated funding."
Experts have referred to the growing number of aging Americans as "the gray tsunami," which threatens to inundate our health care system as millions of Baby Boomers get older. West said he'd like to make health care more affordable by lessening that strain.
Dr. John Cooke, director of the Center for Cardiovascular Regeneration and director of the RNA Therapeutics Program in the Houston Methodist DeBakey Heart and Vascular Center in Houston, is doing similar research focused on extending the life of kids with progeria, a disease where children rapidly grow old and usually don't live past their teen years.
However, many other diseases could benefit from this kind of therapy, too.
"It could be useful for cancer therapy. You know these T cells that they engineer to attack the tumor? We can make those cells healthier, we can rejuvenate them so they can attack the tumor with renewed vigor," Cooke said.
In the last 10 years, Lewis has been diagnosed with one chronic illness after another.
"I wish my body was not deteriorating like it is, but you know, that comes with age, and I accept it," Lewis said.
Cooke said with advancements in this science, people will live to 100 and beyond. Plus, they'll feel better.
"The achievable is something that we can do within the next 10 years, and that is improving cell therapies," he said. "We're going to extend human lifespan over the next few decades. We will do that, that will be accomplished."
How so? Maybe a pill or an injection, but the research isn't there yet. Cooke said long before this becomes commercially available, socioeconomic experts will need to weigh in on how to make these kinds of treatments available to everyone regardless of their income and status.
Hear West’s warning about scammers who profit saying they can reproduce this science in this video: