The science behind a cure for ageing

Experiments have reversed the effects of old age in mice – but can the same apply to humans?

Anti-ageing has become the holy grail of science
Anti-ageing has become the holy grail of science
(Image credit: Ute Grabowsky/Photothek via Getty Images)

Scientists in the US have successfully reversed some of the effects of ageing in mice, potentially opening the door to a breakthrough in the fight to halt the ageing process in humans.

Now at a global average of 73 years, human life expectancy has more than doubled between 1900 and 2020, “but that remarkable gain has come at a cost”, said National Geographic: “a staggering rise in chronic and degenerative illnesses. Ageing remains the biggest risk factor for cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, type 2 diabetes, arthritis, lung disease, and just about every other major illness.”

Attempts to mitigate, or even reverse, these effects has in the space of a few decades moved from the fringes to become the holy grail of scientific innovation, driving huge investment amid interest from some of the world’s richest people hoping to live for ever.

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“Powered by artificial intelligence, big data, cellular reprogramming, and an increasingly exquisite understanding of the zillions of molecules that keep our bodies humming,” National Geographic said, “it seems everyone with cash to burn is placing a bet on ageing’s next – or really, its first – big thing.”

What do the latest studies show?

Two recent experiments, published in the scientific journal Cell, build on the work of pioneering Kyoto University biologist Shinya Yamanaka, who won a share of the Nobel Prize in medicine in 2012 for discovering how a cocktail of proteins can reprogramme adult cells into versatile stem cells.

One team at San Diego-based biotech company Rejuvenate Bio used gene therapy to deliver some of the so-called “Yamanaka factors” to old mice, modestly extending their life span. Another group at Harvard Medical School, led by genetics professor David Sinclair, followed a similar strategy to reverse ageing-like changes in genetically engineered mice, resulting in old blind mice regaining their eyesight, developing smarter younger brains and healthier muscle and kidney tissue.

“In both cases, the Yamanaka factors appear to have restored part of the animals’ epigenome, chemical modifications on DNA and proteins that help regulate gene activity, to a more youthful state,” reported Science.

Taken together, said CNN, they “challenge the scientific belief aging is the result of genetic mutations that undermine our DNA, creating a junkyard of damaged cellular tissue that can lead to deterioration, disease and death”.

What does it mean for humans?

Science said both teams of scientists “argue the proteins can turn back the clock for entire organisms – perhaps one day humans”.

Likening it to the “Benjamin Button effect” after the film in which a person ages backwards, Professor Sinclair claimed our bodies hold a back-up copy of our youth that can be triggered to regenerate.

“We believe it’s a loss of information – a loss in the cell’s ability to read its original DNA so it forgets how to function – in much the same way an old computer may develop corrupted software. I call it the information theory of ageing,” Sinclair told a health and wellness event last year.

However, others are more sceptical. “Scientists are great at making mice live longer,” admitted National Geographic, but “delaying death in worms and mice, however, doesn’t mean it will work in humans”.

So will we see a cure for ageing?

“So far, none of the experimental drugs that have had such dazzling effects in mice have made it to the market,” said National Geographic.

“There are lots of different approaches,” said molecular biologist Cynthia Kenyon. “We don’t know if any of them will work. But maybe they’ll all work! Maybe combinations will be fabulous. The good news now is that people have literally accepted this kind of science as being real. They’re excited about the possibilities. We just have to try a lot of things. And that’s what people are doing.”

Some, such as controversial anti-ageing proponent Aubrey de Grey, believe the experimental research phase is itself moving too slowly.

“Grey has done a lot to promote the idea that ageing and death are solvable problems – that the damage done over time by metabolic processes can be reversed, and that there’s a chance the first thousand-year-old human may already have been born,” said New Atlas.

Having raised hundreds of millions of dollars by convincing billionaires that anti-ageing breakthroughs can give them extra decades and everlasting youth, Grey’s new Longevity Escape Velocity (LEV) Foundation has already begun using a combination of therapies in an effort to radically extend the lives of middle-aged mice.

The overall aim of the project, said New Atlas, is twofold: “to identify longevity therapies that’ll work in humans, and to produce the kind of spectacular results that’ll get longevity research onto the Oprah Winfrey show, preparing the unwashed masses for a world in which only taxes remain constant”.

Researchers say that “ageing itself is a disease that we can understand and treat, cancer and heart disease and dementia only its symptoms”, wrote Daniela Lamas in The New York Times.

“They would tell you that the first person to live until 150 has already been born. In a way this sounds preposterous, the dream of biotech billionaires, fuelled by denial and fear of death and the illusion of control. But on the other hand, there is real science here. So I let myself imagine.”

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