French state scientists want to help people live to 120 in good health

Public research institute Ircan from Nice explains its innovative cell rejuvenation techniques

An Ircan scientist studies zebra fish as part of ageing research
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A research institute is aiming to help people in France live up to 120 years in good health.

Nice-based Ircan told The Connexion it wants to become the “go-to authority and benchmark” in the country in an emerging field – understanding the ageing process and how to treat it.

It has been researching both cancer and ageing for 12 years and its new director, Dr Dmitry Bulavin, wants to give a new boost to the anti-ageing side.

He said there had been a logic to combining the two subjects: older people are more likely to get cancer, plus cancer research attracts funds.

“But we’re now getting to the point when funding agencies recognise ageing more, so we can directly apply for funds in relation to it, whereas in the beginning it was a struggle and no one appreciated the significance of ageing as a problem.”

Their research focuses on overall health into older age, not just cosmetic aspects.

He said the “ultimate goal” would be to help people live up to 120 years – roughly the maximum natural human lifespan recorded – with most of those years being “healthy and functional”.

“Extending healthspan is obviously beneficial for society, as less will be spent on treatments for ageing-related diseases,” he said.

“But there is a lot to think about. We want to work with the authorities as to how to deal with the retirement age and the general perception of work, knowing that you will live longer. Even family life will be different, for example, as there will be great-grandparents around.”

While Dr Bulavin thinks there is little evidence the 120-year limit can be extended, as some outliers in this field believe, he is convinced that a much longer average life in good health can, and will, be achieved.

Resetting immune system

Future therapies could involve, for example, doctors taking specific kinds of cells from your body, ‘reprogramming’ them with ‘pulses’ of special genes to remove the effects of ageing, then putting the rejuvenated cells back with an injection or blood transfusion.

Ircan’s latest research shows promising results using immune system cells which could, once ‘reset’, play a ‘surveillance’ role, keeping other cells healthy and looking out for ones that go wrong.

Dmitry Bulavin, left, and John Rowell

“This kind of pulse of rejuvenation could, on its own, be enough to maintain the body, because your immune system will be constantly resetting itself,” Dr Bulavin said. An Ircan study published in Nature Cell Biology last year showed strongly-reduced ageing in mouse livers by using a similar approach.

Another recent discovery found that ‘knocking out’ certain cell ‘pathways’ enabled scientists to genetically engineer mice that had significantly delayed frailty caused by ageing. Their muscle strength was found to stay similar to young mice into older age.

The institute is enlarging its facilities for keeping mice, zebra fish and corals, but the key new element now will be research aimed at finding out if the discoveries can apply to people, including organising trials with human patients.

Referring to Europe’s leading cancer research hospital, in Paris, Dr Bulavin said: “The Institut Gustave Roussy was extremely successful in making the transition from basic research to the clinic and a tremendous number of clinical trials are going on there in cancer-related illness.

“There’s strong interest from the doctors and clinical scientists to do more clinical research and trials into ageing-related pathologies, which has not yet been tapped. And this is what we want to develop here in Nice.”

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Founded in 2012 by Prof Eric Gilson and what is now Université Côte d’Azur and state health and research bodies Inserm and CNRS, Ircan stands for Institute for Research on Cancer and Aging. With 200 staff, it has generated many journal publications as well as several patents and start-up companies.

Now it plans, from 2025, to create an ageing and longevity research federation, teaming up with state and private partners such as labs, hospitals, the Ulysseus European universities network, and AI institutes. It is hoped AI will help in anonymously analysing data from trials and linking findings to research.

The federation will run training programmes on the biology of ageing and an annual conference. It is also setting up a foundation for ageing to attract donations to fund clinical trials.

Cancer research

Along with looking at ways to fight the ageing process, Ircan will continue to study ‘ageing-related’ diseases such as cancer. It works especially closely with Nice’s specialist cancer hospital, the Centre Antoine Lacassagne.

“But we’re branching out into different diseases and trying to build clinical research programmes into them.

“We’re looking for doctors to bring them together with our research, especially in the immunology field. They will be able to tell us if something we could do in mice can be translated into humans. It is the reality check that will tell us which direction we should go.”

Dr Bulavin said unlike cancer, where all cancerous cells must be destroyed for the person to be well, some age-related illnesses need only about 10%-15% of affected cells to be treated to restore healthy function. 

Director of innovation John Rowell said: “The problem with clinical trials is they are very expensive. We have collaborations and partnerships, but we are building on these so we can easily take our research into preclinical [animal] and clinical trials.

“When you talk to doctors, there is a lot of appetite for it, and it is very well structured here in France. It is traditional here, perhaps because France has big pharmaceutical companies.

“We have structures in place where they can do small trials. Then, once we need to go to big ones, the foundation will come into play to add the next layer.”

They aim to offer a ‘one-stop shop’, Dr Rowell said.

“There’s a lab where we prepare tissue samples. You cover it in a hard paraffin and slice it to get sections you can stain and look at under the microscope. In another lab, we sort cells into types, we also do DNA sequencing and analyse everything with a bioinformatics service.”

Read also: Life expectancy - simple changes to benefit from France's good stats

Social impacts

He said bringing as many partners as possible into the federation will help prepare for potential new social impacts.

“There needs to be plenty of discussion, especially with an already ageing population and low birth rate in France.

“We are seeing a shift where, by 2030, there might be more people retired than working, and our social security system is based on the fact that the people working now fund it.

“If we were to introduce these therapies – let us say, in 10-20 years, this will be a reality – there is a lot we would have to do with the policymakers.”

Health insurance is another area that could be affected. “We might imagine that you could sign up for a lifelong contract but you get these treatments every year, but your pre­miums are lowered as the company is not having to pay for all the age-related diseases…

“We have 15 labs working on this, but we don’t cover everything, and the topic is huge. The federation can help make sure everything is in alignment.”

Another element will be finding new ways of monitoring markers as to how youthful patients’ bodies are.

“You could, for example, look at a blood sample, or even the intestinal microbiome, and say this combination is indicative that you’re slipping into the more unhealthy part of your healthspan,” Dr Bulavin said.

32,000 centenarians in France

France already does well in world rankings for longevity and healthy old age, which Dr Bulavin puts down partly to good access to hospitals – and plenty of pharmacies.

“You see them everywhere. I do not think everyone in most other coun­tries has such access to all possible drugs.

“Here, for example, if you get diabetes, they immediately put you on drugs that will keep it at bay for a very long time, so that is going to have a major impact on your healthspan.”

Last year, the country hit its highest-yet life expectancy at birth, of 85.7 for a woman and 80 for a man.

It counts 31,644 centenarians – compared to 100 in 1900, and more than 2,000 people aged over 105.

One in five people is now aged 65 or over and one in 10 is 75 or more.

A report by statistical research agency DREES also found people in France have a ‘healthy’ life expec­tancy above the European average, with women at age 65 being expected to maintain 11.8 years of good health, and men 10.2. For men, 59.3% of their remaining years are deemed to be healthy and for women 54.4%.

Read more: Healthy life expectancy is increasing in France

‘Healthy’ was defined as being able to continue with activities of daily living without being limited. Men in France have eight months more healthy life expectancy than the European average, and women one year and eight months.

A French study published in The Lancet Regional Health found that people in France have lower levels of cardiovascular illnesses than most other western European countries.

The world’s oldest-ever person was French: Jeanne Calment, from Arles, died aged 122 in 1997, as was Lucile Randon, known as sister André, who reached 118, the fourth-oldest ever.

Mrs Calment famously entered into a viager contract with a notaire, selling her flat for a one-off sum and the right of occupancy, and a monthly revenue until death. She outlived him, leaving his heirs to take on the contract.