New technologies to combat ageing

The research being carried out in the field of anti-ageing focuses on prolonging life, but in better conditions. There is also great interest in preventing degenerative diseases, especially Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, which have a high incidence in the elderly population. Scientific research has addressed this fight against ageing through pharmacological therapies, regenerative medicine, calorie restriction and the use of blood plasma.

A child born today in Spain has an average life expectancy of 83 years, according to data from the National Statistics Institute (INE) for 2018. The difference at birth between being a man and a woman is more than five years: 85.5 years is the life expectancy for a girl; 83.2 for a boy.

And what is most significant is the evolution of the world population's ageing expectancy curve over the last 60 years: from an average of just 52.5 years in 1960, according to the World Bank (in Spain it was 69), to 72.3 years today.

Laboratory studies show that the molecular processes that trigger the ageing process in the body are the same as those that are at the root of most of the diseases that plague developed countries.

This means that diseases such as cancer, neurodegenerative diseases (Alzheimer's, Parkinson's) and degenerative diseases in general (fibrosis of various organs) multiply and intensify with the ageing of the population. It is therefore urgent to understand the molecular causes of ageing in order to make significant advances in the diagnosis, prevention and cure of ageing diseases.

The objective of establishing therapeutic strategies to slow down ageing has a dual social and economic factor. On the one hand, prolonging life is desirable if it is accompanied by well-being and an adequate state of health. The natural tendency is for longer survival to be accompanied by an extension of the active capacity (working or otherwise) of individuals, making use of their knowledge and experience as far as possible.

On the other hand, a population pyramid in which the largest age groups aggregate from the age of 35 onwards suggests a severe imbalance in the future capacity to produce resources for the population as a whole if a significant part of this group suffers from health difficulties, which reduce or eliminate their activity and autonomy, subjecting them to a situation of dependency.

According to the definition of gerontotechnology formulated by the University of South Florida, in an attempt to provide a holistic view of the issue, it is the area in which all developing technologies are linked to meet the needs and life aspirations of older adults. This opens up a very broad field from medicine, genetics, psychology and socio-politics, to biomaterials, robotics and mechatronics.

But focusing on the field of biotechnology, the focus is on research into the activity, regeneration and decay of the cells that make up living tissues, and the behaviour of molecules and compounds that can interact favourably with them. Or, conversely, isolating and counteracting the elements whose interaction causes, favours or accelerates cell deterioration.

Laboratory research work should be aimed at identifying these factors (telomeres, DNA, RNA, etc.) and the products (enzymes, genetic vectors, etc.) or processes that can have favourable effects on them, with the possibility of generating patents on which to build industrial activities in this field of health.

  Spain's role

Biotechnology is one of the fields in which Spain invests most heavily in research. According to the latest data consolidated by the INE, corresponding to 2017, it absorbs 12% of Spanish domestic R&D expenditure (possibly more, if the increase in investment in the last two years has been similar to the 7% that biotechnology recorded in that year).

Spain has leading research centres and scientists in this field, starting with the activity of public bodies such as the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (Spanish National Research Council). (CSIC), of which the National Centre for Biotechnology and the Severo Ochoa Centre for Molecular Biologyand the also public Centro Nacional de Investigaciones Oncológicas (National Cancer Research Centre). (CNIO)The project is also active in universities, science parks and regional and local government bodies.

In the private sector, we can identify highly innovative companies such as Biokit, Oryzon Genomics and a long etcetera, and more than half a dozen companies in this specific field with an eight-figure turnover. There is a strong Spanish organisation of biotech companies, Asebio, with 271 members, according to its data, including eight multinationals and six large companies. Of the companies, 65% are involved in healthcare biotechnology.

All of this suggests the image of a more powerful and articulated sector for industrial activity than is usually common in Spain, with a decided and necessary vocation for investment in innovation in order to remain at the forefront of competitiveness.