Extending Longevity—This Time, of Body Parts

U.K. researchers are working to make heart valves and artificial joints more durable.

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More than half of babies born today in the developed world will live to see 100, according to a review published in October in The Lancet. While life expectancies are rising, our bodies were not designed for such a long haul, and current solutions to address that wear and tear have their drawbacks. Bioengineers at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom, however, have a plan to make 100 the new 50: They've launched an $82 million project to develop and quickly bring to market new therapies—mainly implants—that would replace the body parts most likely to falter or fail, without the problems of current replacements. "We're not extending life, just enhancing the quality of life," explains John Fisher, director of the university's Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering.

The project's key innovation, already being tested in humans in a clinical trial in Brazil, is a heart valve bio-scaffold invented by immunologist Eileen Ingham. A donor valve from either a cadaver or an animal is processed to remove its living cells, leaving behind only an inert material made of proteins, mainly collagen and elastin. Once implanted, the patient's own cells repopulate the scaffold, making rejection unlikely. (Mechanical valves need to be accompanied by anticoagulation drugs; this innovation would eliminate that need.) The same technique, Fisher says, could be used to grow new ligaments and tendons for crippled knees, hips, and ankles or to give patients arterial patches and provide similar benefits. The researchers also say implants created this way are likely to be long-lasting. Today's artificial hips "were invented for people only expected to live another 20 years," Fisher says, and their developers weren't anticipating lifestyles that might include bicycling and skiing.

George Truskey, chairman of Duke University's biomedical engineering department, says it's a unique approach and a good idea. "It raises an important point about the quality of life as we age," he says. After all, living an extra few decades isn't such a hot prospect if we're plagued by painful joints, poor circulation, or a faulty heart. Moreover, Fisher claims that because recipients regrow their own cells internally, these scaffolds are relatively inexpensive to develop, store, and supply compared to other methods under development. Stem cells, for example, must be removed, developed into new tissue in a lab, and then implanted in the body. Additionally, Fisher says, it will allow older patients to return to work, so there are positive social and economic benefits, as well. Make way: Here come the bionic centenarians.

[Read How Scientists Are Changing the Definition of Old Age and How 5 Longevity Researchers Stave Off Aging]