A Side-Effect Free Fountain of Youth?

It’s not yet a medical miracle, but a new study might have brought us a step closer to halting, and even reversing, the process of ageing.

Tests on laboratory mice have shown that a new treatment, which involves a specially modified protein, can have a slowing effect on the ageing process. Scientists are excited, but naturally cautious about the discovery in this, its very early stages.

Over time, all biological cells begin to fail and decay — a process scientists call senescence. It is thought that the lingering presence of these cells are at least partly responsible for the adverse effects that are commonly associated with ageing, such as arthritis, heart disease and diabetes. The holy grail of anti-ageing treatments would slow, stop and reverse the process of senescence, allowing young, healthy cells to flourish.

Past and current attempts at achieving an extended life, however, have often come with some undesirable side effects. The drugs currently used to combat cell death are often similar to those used in chemotherapy cancer treatments, which can wreak havoc in other parts of the body — damaging healthy cells and increasing the risk of other diseases and conditions.

This new treatment however, which involves a specially designed molecule, appears to avoid the nastier of side effects. The senescent cells absorb the new molecule, which then initiates cell death, allowing the body to flush away the old cells. Crucially, however, the different way that healthy cells works means they do not take up the molecule and so aren’t triggered to undergo a similar cellular death process. By avoiding damaging healthy cells, the treatment could avoid the unpleasant side effects that have so far plagued the field of anti-ageing treatments.

The molecule was introduced to lab mice, who had either aged naturally or artificially, through modified genetics or by specialised chemotherapy. Through a course of three treatments a week over the course of a year, the elderly mice showed signs of improvement, including being more active, showing better organ function and even regrowing patches of hair.

The treatment is obviously still in its very early stages, and, even if it continues to prove successful, is still many years away from any kind of human test. Still, perhaps an extended life is closer than we think.

Image credit: Bruce Wetzel/Harry Schaefer/National Cancer Institute

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