New longevity centre looks at how to reverse ageing and prolong disease-free years

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The National University Health System Centre for Healthy Longevity, which opened on Sept 7, will test ways to slow ageing.

SINGAPORE - Imagine a day when you can walk into a clinic to do a series of tests - including blood and strength tests - to get your biological age, which will give you an idea of your health status so that you can do something to slow ageing and prevent diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular disorders.

Research on new biomarkers to measure ageing is ongoing at the National University Health System (NUHS) Centre for Healthy Longevity (CHL), which opened on Wednesday.

The centre will also test ways to slow ageing and aims to translate findings from laboratory models to human clinical trials to clinical practice.

The urgency is clear as one in four Singaporeans will be above 65 years of age by 2030 and, as life expectancy rises, they will be spending about 10 of their twilight years in poor health.

"The hundred-year life may well be the norm for children born in developed countries, if the current trends continue," said Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies, Mr Heng Swee Keat, at the centre's opening event at the NUHS auditorium in Kent Ridge Road.

"Healthy longevity ensures that the additional years are a boon, rather than a grim millstone of disease burden and fiscal cost. This is particularly salient for Singapore and many parts of the world, where populations are rapidly ageing.

At the centre's opening, Professor Chong Yap Seng, dean of National University of Singapore (NUS) Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, said the ability to find biomarkers of ageing that can be altered in a few months to reverse or stop the ageing process will, in the long run, alter the cost of ageing.

Healthy longevity also involves a "life course" approach, which means it should start from even before a person is born - from the mother's health - to the health of the person in childhood, he said.

CHL's co-director, Professor Brian Kennedy, said the centre, located in Alexandra Hospital and a laboratory at NUS Medicine, integrates pre-clinical and clinical research to test ways of slowing ageing in a South-east Asian population.

The idea is that if you measure a person's biological age, this can tell you more about his current state of health than what traditional biomarkers for diseases, such as blood pressure or blood sugar, can.

"Somebody is chronologically 60, but... biologically, he may be only 50, or he may age poorly and be biologically 70. We need to be able to measure this so we can stratify the population to combat ageing and measure whether interventions are working efficiently biologically," he said.

The centre has screening tools that analyse facial ageing via machine learning and measure arterial stiffness, body composition, functional ability and others.

Participants aged 30 and above have been recruited over the past year for various studies.

At least 15 studies are ongoing, including Project Abios (Ageing Biomarker Study in Singaporeans) which is looking at several hundred biomarkers in 420 to 450 participants. 

The centre is also participating in the healthy longevity translational research programme at NUS, which looks at hacking ageing. There will be a series of clinical studies to test novel nutritional supplements and repurposed drugs to slow ageing in adults aged 40 to 60 years old.

A special camera will take photos of the face and create a 3D image, which will be developed to predict one's biological age. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

One of the supplements is alpha-ketoglutarate, which has been shown to increase the healthspan - the period of life spent in good health - and lifespan in mice.

The centre will be investigating whether six months of daily supplementation can slow biological ageing and initial results are estimated to be available in a year's time, said Professor Andrea Maier, the centre's co-director.

Repurposed drugs include metformin, a well-known drug used to treat Type 2 diabetes, that may be able to slow ageing.

Mr Kelvin Lee taking the arterial stiffness test at Alexandra Hospital. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

The centre's mission is to enhance healthspan by three to five years in the Singapore population by slowing biological ageing.

"In three to five years, healthy longevity will not only exist as a lab-proven concept, but also become part of everyone's life," said Prof Maier.

"So next time, tell your GP (general practitioner) your biological age, not your chronological age, for a more targeted, customised and precise prognosis and treatment or intervention plan."

To mark the CHL's opening, the centre on Wednesday held its inaugural one-day Longevity Science Singapore Conference at the NUHS auditorium, where experts from countries such as the United States and China gathered to talk about translating ageing research into clinical practice.

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