The week’s most astounding developments from the neobiological frontier.

September 30, 2021

New nonprofit promises $1 billion in longevity funding over 10 years

This just in: A new Swiss nonprofit called the Longevity Science Foundation aims to raise $1 billion for research to advance human longevity over the next decade. Their goal will be to extend the healthy human lifespan to more than 120 years and insure equal access to longevity-focused care and medicine, according to Garri Zmudze, executive coordinator of the foundation. They promise to fill funding gaps in translational research as well as to deliver increased transparency and inclusivity to the field. They also announced an unusual funding mechanism whereby they will attach voting rights to donations given to the foundation, allowing financial contributors some sway in deciding which projects receive funding. Longevity Science Foundation

Why stop at 120 years? Do I hear 130?

A paper appeared this week that calls into question the natural limits of human lifespan estimated by earlier research. Written by mathematicians at the University of Montreal, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, and Chalmers and Gothenburg University in Sweden, the work applies the sophisticated statistical methods of extreme value theory and survival analysis to analyze semi-supercentenarians in Italy and France (people who died between the ages of 105 and 109). It shatters earlier predictions of an upper limit on human lifespans of ~120 years and predicts we could see some instances of people living to the ripe old age of 130 later this century. Royal Society Open Science

Narrative structure of human memory

Historians have long celebrated the extreme brevity of Julius Caesar’s famous summary of an entire military campaign into one phrase: Veni, vidi, vici (“I came, I saw, I conquered”). Part of the appeal of the phrase is its narrative structure, which combines three separate events in time into a single, concise arc. Now neuroscientists at the University of California, Davis have demonstrated that this is exactly how the human brain preferentially forms memories—by mapping discrete, distant experiences onto a larger narrative. Using fMRI, they showed that when memories are formed in the brain’s hippocampus, they are more easily recalled by subjects later if they fit into a coherent narrative with past events. Current Biology

People who quit antidepression drugs face greater risk of relapse

Some 6 percent of the world’s population suffers depression at any given time, and current treatment options—even in high-income countries—are not ideal. That fact was starkly highlighted this week in the disappointing results of a double-blind clinical trial involving 478 people taking the antidepression drugs citalopram, sertraline, and fluoxetine in the U.K., most for two years or more. Led by doctors at University College London, the trial gauged whether people who felt ready to quit their meds were at greater risk of relapse, and it turns out they were. Relapse occurred in 56 percent of the people who discontinued their drugs versus 39 percent of those who continued on their regular doses—stark results that feel like comparing bad to worse. NEJM

Do epidurals really cause autism? New studies find no link.

A controversial study in California last year reporting increased risk of autism in children whose mothers took epidurals during labor opened up a hot debate within pediatric and obstetric circles. Now two major clinical studies out this week cast doubt on that association—though not definitively settling the debate. One study, from the University of Copenhagen, followed 485,093 children born in Denmark from 2006–2013 and found epidural use by their mothers during labor was not significantly associated with autism. A second study from Vancouver General Hospital followed 388,254 children born in British Columbia, Canada, from 2000–2014. While it did find a slight but statistically significant increase in autism with epidural use, the authors say that evidence is not strong enough to support the association. JAMA

A protein–protein interaction map of breast cancer

The widespread availability of genome sequencing promises to revolutionize cancer care by giving doctors a handle on all the specific DNA mutations in any one person’s tumors—data that could predict their prognosis, suggest a specific course of treatment, and even help develop new drugs. Implementing such personalized medicine may have to wait, however, until we fully understand how all the gene variations actually drive cancer. Now the Cancer Cell Map Initiative at the University of California, San Francisco and UC San Diego has demonstrated one way forward is to construct maps of interacting proteins in cancer cells. In a series of results published today, they uncovered previously unknown protein–protein interactions inside tumors, including two proteins connected to the tumor suppressor breast cancer gene BRCA1Science

Aging alters the gut microbiome

In a study of 251 people aged 18–80 years old, researchers at Cedar-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles examined age-related changes in the gut microbiome of the duodenum, or small intestine. While the overall diversity of the microbiome generally decreases with age, they found that levels of certain bacteria like BacteroidesLactobacillus, and Escherichia increase with age in those studied. They also found species of Klebsiella bacteria increase with medication use while others, like Clostridium, increase more in older people who have other health conditions. These findings lay essential groundwork for understanding some of the clinically relevant effects of aging on human health and disease. Cell Reports

Film review: Khal Drogo takes on big pharma

It’s almost a cliché for a big-budget Hollywood movie to stake out some moral high ground, though you don’t often see it in an action flick. But that’s exactly what you’ll find in the new conspiracy thriller Sweet Girl (2021). Starring Jason Momoa (Game of ThronesAquaman) as an unlikely working-class hero whose wife falls victim to a greedy pharmaceutical company, he sets out to expose their complicity and seek revenge—think Erin Brockovich meets Dirty Harry. What follows is not just a tight film with lots of obligatory fight sequences but an unexpected sign of hope for the future: If Hollywood can wield its mighty pulpit to call attention to the pernicious problem of health care costs and drug prices in America (already higher here than anywhere else in the world), we may all benefit far beyond the box office. Netflix