5 Questions for Nicholas Schork, Ph.D.
True to its Western roots, TGen has spent the better part of 20 years mining the human genome for insights and inspiration to advance the diagnoses and treatment of disease. For Nicholas Schork, Ph.D., these explorations sift through—and make sense of—vast sums of genomic data to help others lead healthier, happier lives through what he and colleagues refer to as precision aging.
He’s a modern day prospector. Armed with supercomputers instead of sieves, he blurs the lines between statistical analysis and population health in search of a nugget that sparks discovery, pushes the boundaries of what’s possible, and delivers actionable information that holds the potential to change our lives for the better.
The following Q and A has been edited for length and clarity.
How do you define precision aging and why is it important?
The concept of precision aging centers around a framework of healthy aging enabled by tailoring interventions and strategies to the individual. It is a way of maintaining health throughout the aging process, motivated by each person’s unique profile — their behaviors, their genetics, their biochemistry, etc. Today, there are over 500 clinical trials underway focused on slowing aging, and there’s even a new class of drug called geroprotectors that look to slow the aging rate and potentially prevent one from developing different age-related diseases.
You collaborate with Dr. Matt Huentelman: tell us about that.
Matt’s focus is primarily on brain health or cognitive health, while my work focuses more on physical health and physical decline. The question we ask each other is how independent are the two? Evidence suggests that perhaps they are somewhat independent. Many people develop Alzheimer’s disease, for example, who are physically fine. The opposite happens as well, in that there are those individuals whose mental acuity is fine but their bodies fail them. Matt and I trade notes often and currently our labs are collaborating on several projects due to our mutual interest in determining what common elements might exist that control resilience to cognitive decline and physical disease as one ages.
What should people know about longevity and healthy aging?
Like any new endeavor, there’s hype (live longer, better, faster), but there are also a number of serious efforts, such as the ones that Matt [Dr. Huentelman] and I and others are taking that are more science-based. Google has an initiative called Calico that they’ve invested $2.5 billion in and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos recently invested $3 billion to set up Altos Labs to develop geroprotectors that can halt or reverse the human aging process. In terms of hype, you might read a newspaper article touting huge advances in aging science and suggesting that within a decade we’ll all live to the age of 500, but you should take these stories with a grain of salt. There are, however, serious efforts to better understand the aging process and one day perhaps that science might enable us to slow the aging rate and allow people to live longer and healthier lives.
What do you do for yourself regularly to promote longevity and healthy aging?
It’s pretty simple right now: I exercise, I watch my diet, and I make sure that I’m eating clean foods to the greatest degree possible. I also take a C15 supplement, which is an essential fatty acid. There are certain nutrients that are essential to the body, since the body doesn’t make them internally. When you deprive the body of these essential nutrients, the body sort of falls apart. So one simple thing everyone can do is to make sure their body receives enough of these essential nutrients, whether through food or a supplement. In my case, I don’t eat fatty food to a great extent so the C15 provides my body with what it needs without the worry or negative consequences that accompany eating a lot of fatty foods.
What excites and inspires you about the future?
I’m indeed excited about the future. With respect to precision aging research, I think near-term, we’ll see a paradigm shift in how to treat and prevent diseases. I see biomedical research moving toward a more interdisciplinary ‘pan disease’ approach that focuses less on any one disease, but rather on strategies to avoid all diseases. Of course, at the end of day, much will still fall on the individual in terms of making smart health choices and adjusting any unhealthy behaviors. At some point there may be medications that help one remain healthy, but I believe even pills will never be complete substitutes for leading a healthy life.