What's the Catch: The Fountain of Youth

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What's the Catch: The Fountain of Youth

Scientist Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte from the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, claims that the aging process may reversible: “Our study shows that aging may not have to proceed in one single direction. With careful modulation, aging might be reversed.”

Izpisua Belmonte attests that he implemented a new form of gene therapy on mice that were given a genetic disorder called progeria. After six weeks of treatment, the animals looked younger—and not only that, they had straighter spines, better cardiovascular health, healed more quickly when injured and actually lived longer.

How It’s Done

The rejuvenating treatment performed on the mice manipulates adult cells, such as skin cells, and turns them back into powerful stem cells (similar to what is seen in embryos). These powerhouses are referred to as induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells and have the ability to multiply and transform into any cell type in the body; in fact, in trial tests, Izpisua Belmonte says iPS cells are being designed to provide organs and limbs for patients. He claims that his latest study is the first to show that the same technique can be used on other cells to “rewind the clock” and make them look younger. Izpisua Belmonte explains, “The treatment 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 artificially switched on when the mice were exposed to a chemical in their drinking water.”

What This Means:

This finding at the Salk Institute suggests that aging may not have to proceed in one direction—in fact, Izpisua Belmonte states that it may actually be reversible. Although tests have not been conducted on humans yet, he predicts that applications via creams or injections are a decade away.

This rejuvenating treatment may not lead to immortality, but due to a growing body of evidence, scientists at the Salk Institute theorize that “aging is driven by an internal genetic clock that actively causes our body to enter a state of decline. In developing this technology, it is hoped that future treatments designed will slow the ticking of this ‘internal clock’ and ultimately increase life expectancy.”

What’s the Catch?

Dr. Sidney Chiu, a 5th year resident at the University of Toronto, thinks this information should be taken with a grain of salt: “The findings are promising, but nowhere near ready for the front lines of healthcare. These experiments were done in highly controlled settings on genetically modified mice. If this finding were true, it would be worthy of a Nobel Prize because it would be akin to uncovering the Holy Grail.” Chiu elaborates, “If you can induce iPS cells, you have the basic building blocks to regenerate anything in the body. But this is far beyond any current medical science we have.”

There are also numerous issues to address concerning the study: firstly, the mice are bred in labs for these types of tests, so the variables are controlled from the outset to attain desired results. Chiu adds, “In the real world, you cannot turn specific genes on and off using treated water on mice in the wild, let alone humans. There isn’t one specific gene for aging; I would be cautious about this scientist’s claims that isolating merely four could unlock the key to anti-aging. Even if we were just talking about reviving skin tissue, if his findings were true, it would be a breakthrough.”

Chiu says that while it is technically possible to alter genetic material when humans are in an embryonic state, that wasn’t done here (gene editing research in human embryos is currently allowed in Sweden China, and the United Kingdom. The United States doesn’t currently have any legal prohibitions against it).

But it’s not to say that all of this is in the realm of science fiction; Chiu offers knowledge of research being conducted specifically for telomeres and their relationship to aging. “Think of telomeres as the plastic caps that protect your shoelaces from fraying. The laces would be our chromosomes, the recipe for making a living thing.” In fact, telomeres have an important role; they protect genetic material from damage that could otherwise lead to diseases or cell death. But because the number of cell divisions in telomeres is finite, once they become shorter (in length) and can no longer reproduce, it causes tissues to degenerate and eventually die. It is theorized that this process may contribute to the human aging process. So scientists are trying to find ways to extend the length of telomeres.

Izpisua Belmonte says that chemical approaches (via creams or injections) might be in human clinical trials to rejuvenate skin, bones and muscle within the next decade. However, from his perspective as a frontline healthcare worker, Chiu believes that we may just have to wait a bit longer than that before such innovations are accessible to everyone.

Main Photo by Thomas Rydberg, CC-BY

Tiffany Leigh is a Toronto-based food, travel, and science writer.