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Biomarkers and aging: The clock-watcher

Biostatistics Professor Steve Horvath has discovered a strikingly accurate way to measure human aging through epigenetic signatures.
Tuesday, April 8, 2014

As a teenager in Germany, Steve Horvath, his identical twin Markus and their friend Jörg Zimmermann formed 'the Gilgamesh project', which involved regular meetings where the three discussed mathematics, physics and philosophy. The inspiration for the name, Horvath says, was the ancient Sumerian epic in which a king of Uruk searches for a plant that can restore youth. Fittingly, talk at the meetings often turned to ideas for how science might extend lifespan.

At their final meeting in 1989, the trio made a solemn pact: to dedicate their careers to pursuing science that could prolong healthy human life. Jörg set his eye on computer science and artificial intelligence, Markus on biochemistry and genetics, and Steve says that he “planned to use mathematical modelling and gene networks to understand how to extend life”. Jörg did end up working in artificial intelligence, as a computer scientist at the University of Bonn in Germany, but “Markus fell off the wagon”, his brother says, “and became a psychiatrist”.

Steve, now a human geneticist and biostatistician at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), says that he finally feels poised to make good on the promise. Through a hard-fought project that involved years of solo work, multiple rejections by editors and reviewers and battling through the loss of a child, he has gathered and analysed data on more than 13,000 human tissue samples1. The result is a cellular biological clock that has impressed researchers with its accuracy, how easy it is to read and the fact that it ticks at the same rate in many parts of the body — with some intriguing exceptions that might provide clues to the nature of ageing and its maladies.

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