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Genetics is the key to radical innovation in future health care, including new vaccine technology against COVID and many other illnesses. Yet most of our genes are the same as in other animals. Indeed 8 mechanisms of ageing in all animals are almost the same. 

Dr Patrick Dixon, Futurist keynote speaker on the future of health care, and physician, takes a look at latest research into future of genetics, biotech, stem cells and other technologies that could dramatically improve life expectancy - and also provide new approaches to tackling illnesses like COVID.

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Part of keynote for Boehringer Ingleheim and brief interview on future health care, ageing and future life expectancy. 

For over two decades you predicted in books like The Genetic Revolution and Futurewise that many of the world's greatest health care breakthroughs would come from genetics. Why is that?

Future health care will be dominated by genetics - and also immunology. 20 years ago it cost around $800m to read a single genome, the genetic code of an entire person.  Today we can do this routinely for around $2000 and within the next 5- 10 years that cost will fall again to around $100 or less.

What this means is that we are now able to compare genetic code with medical records to predict the future health care needs of millions of people, and every day we are getting more accurate about this.

I call it genetic prophecy.  For years we've been matching genes of cancers to chemotherapy in what we call pharmacogenomics, making predictions about what chemo is most likely to be effective, and gene mapping of tumours is now absolutely routine in oncology.

Most of the innovation in vaccine technology to fight COVID has been driven by genetics. The ability firstly to sequence genes of the virus causing COVID, then to be able to write strips of genetic code, (mRNA) which can be injected into the body to deliver instructions to human cells which drives them to manufacture virus elements inside the body.

You say there are only 8 mechanisms of ageing.  How is that possible?

When you think about it, not such a great surprise.  We know animals share most of their genes.  And many cell structures are very similar.  For example you can swop the mitochondria power packs from a cow cell into a human cell and they work perfectly. Ageing turns out to be an almost identical process in different animals even though it takes place at very different speeds which is why it so fascinating to study these differences, especially where we have very similar or seemingly identical animals with very different life expectancies.

You have written elsewhere of specific genes in humans which help predict old age

Yes that is correct. There are various genes which are far more common in people who live to more than 100 years old.  And they are similar in action to genes that we see in some long-lived animals.

Is it realistic to think that some humans might live for more than 150 years?

Well that is rather speculative.  What we do know is that life expectancy in humans has been steadily improving with one or two short term exceptions, and this is likely to continue.  If you think that my own grandmother lived until the age of 92, and was still working as a physician at the age of 82, what do you think will be the life expectancy of my daughter or her daughter who is now 4 years old?  Five generations on from my grandmother?  

Even if you imaging that life expectancy has only been increasing 3 years in every generation, that would suggest that my grand daughter could well be alive on her 107th birthday.  But the fact is that for the last 20 years the life expectancy of everyone in London has increased on average by one year in every four, which is the equivalent of 7 years in every 28 years.  

What are the easiest ways to add a decade to someone's life expectancy?

The answers are simple:

1.  Eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day

2.  Exercise regularly - at least 2 hours a week (brisk walking does count)

3.  Don't smoke tobacco / use nicotine products

4.  Keep body weight at healthy level]

5.  Limit alcohol to one drink a day (average)

6.  Keep a positive outlook on life

7.  Form a happy, long term relationship

8.  Find work or volunteering that you enjoy and you feel makes a difference

9.  Move to a nation with excellent free health care

10.  Always see your doctor early if you have symptoms which might indicate serious health problems


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