Fountain of Youth: Progress in Slowing Aging, at Least in Mice

Scientists find protein that reverses damage from aging, at least in mice.

ByABC News
February 5, 2013, 7:41 PM

Feb. 6, 2013 — -- Did you see the Super Bowl commercial showing those old codgers acting like teenagers? It's enough to make you turn against the whole idea of extending the human lifespan.

However, scientists the world over are busy in their labs trying to figure out just where Ponce de Leon left his elusive fountain of youth. They may never find it, but new research suggests that even if we can't live a few hundred years, we may at least be able to reverse some of the degenerative effects of what scientists call the "normal aging process."

Scientists at two of the world's leading research institutions, Harvard and the University of California, Berkeley, achieved what Berkeley is calling a "major advance," if not a breakthrough, in the search for a way to stem the ravages of time.

They were able to make old mice seem young again, or at least pick up where nature left off and regenerate the production of blood cells.

They did it by injecting a longevity gene that reversed the decline that had been brought on by aging. That's no fountain of youth, but it could be a really big thing.

If scientists can figure out how to slow aging, or even repair its damages, it may be possible to curb some very debilitating diseases ranging from cancer to dementia.

"Our study is really the first one demonstrating that sirtuins (proteins known to regulate aging) can reverse aging-associated degeneration, and I think that's very exciting," Danica Chen, a Berkeley assistant professor of nutritional science and toxicology and coauthor of a study published in Cell Reports, said in releasing the paper. "This opens the door to potential treatments for age-related degenerative diseases."

Chen, Katherine Brown and colleagues at Berkeley collaborated in the research with David Scadden, director of the Center for Regenerative Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.

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The researchers focused on a specific sirtuin, SIRT3, which has been found to play a role in extending the lifespan of some organisms, such as yeast. One of the most important signs of aging, in all animals, is the gradual loss of the ability to maintain tissues and, especially, blood cells. In time, the body just loses its ability to generate new blood cells to replace those that have fallen along the way.

Sirtuins are proteins generated by genes -- which are snippets of DNA that determine certain characteristics -- and their role is to tell individual cells what to do, or in some cases, what to become. They are the mission commanders, in other words.

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But as organisms age, the adult stem cells that are supposed to maintain and repair tissue decline in number. The researchers found that when they injected the longevity gene into aging mice, they stepped up the production of new adult stem cells, thus fending off the decline that would have been expected from normal aging. But it's even more than that. It actually repaired a system that had deteriorated because of aging.

It's a complex series of procedures, so there's much more to it than this. It is also important to caution that solutions that work well in mice do not necessarily work for human beings. But the evidence suggests that simply beefing up this particular protein in older folks, like those in the Super Bowl commercial, should result in healthier blood, which is the freight train that carries oxygen, nutrients, spare parts and many other essentials throughout the body.