Scientists Now Think the Aging Process Is Reversible

Wednesday, 28 December 2016 - 12:09PM
Genetic Engineering
Weird Science
Wednesday, 28 December 2016 - 12:09PM
Scientists Now Think the Aging Process Is Reversible
A new form of gene therapy produced rejuvenating effects on mice, according to a new study published in Cell

This rejuvenating treatment given to mice was based on a technique used to revert adult cells back into powerful stem cells, similar to those in an embryo. These cells are known as "induced pluripotent stem cells" (iPS cells) and, just like regular stem cells, have the ability to multiply and turn into any cell type in the body. Though iPS cells have been tested and used previously, this latest study is the first to show that the same technique can be used to partially rewind the clock on cells—enough to make them younger but not enough to lose their specialized function. 

The testing involved intermittently switching on the same four genes that are used to turn skin cells into iPS cells. The mice were genetically engineered in such a way that the four genes could be switched on by a chemical that was put in the drinking water. After six weeks of treatment, the animals looked younger, had straight spines and better cardio health, healed quicker when injured and lived 30% longer. 

The scientists first tested the treatment with a genetic disorder called progeria - which is featured in the movie The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Just like Benjamin Button, sufferers of progeria exhibit symptoms such as accelerated aging, DNA damage, organ dysfunction, and dramatically shortened lifespan. 

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"Our study shows that aging may not have to proceed in one single direction. With careful modulation, aging might be reversed," said Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, who led the work at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, CA.
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The findings also support the theory that aging is not simply the result of physical wear and tear, but rather a preprogrammed internal genetic time bomb that actively causes our bodies to enter a state of decline when it goes off. The mice also did not show signs of an increased cancer risk, suggesting that the treatment had successfully rewound the cells without turning them all the way back into stem cells. However, this potential for carcinogenic side effects means that the first humans to receive this treatment are likely to be those with serious genetic conditions, like progeria. "These chemicals could be administered in creams or injections to rejuvenate skin, muscles, or bones," explains Izpisua Belmonte. 

The scientists never claim that aging can be eliminated, bur rather that future treatments would be able to slow this internal clock. "We believe that this approach will not lead to immortality," says Izpisua Belmont. "There are probably still limits that we will face in terms of complete reversal of aging. Our focus is not only extension of lifespan, but most importantly health-span...We think these chemical approaches might be in human clinical trials in the next ten years."

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"This is not science fiction," adds Wolf Reid, a professor of epigenetics at the Babraham Institute.
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