Humans have long pursued the fountain of youth, and certainly there have been extraordinary breakthroughs in years past. But there’s new evidence suggesting we may be drinking from that fountain sooner rather than later.
Researchers announced this past week that they’ve been able to reverse the aging process in mice, using a chemical that in one week made two-year-old mice tissue resemble tissue of six-month-old mice. In human years, that’s as if a 60-year-old’s cells became more like the cells of a 20-year-old.
In a paper published in the journal Cell, lead investigator Dr. David Sinclair, professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, and his colleagues report that a compound naturally made by young cells called NAD (nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide) was able to revitalize older cells and make them youthful and energetic again.
The study, a joint project between Harvard Medical School; the National Institute on Aging; and the University of New South Wales, Sydney, found that the cell nucleus and the mitochondria (the cell’s energy source) stop communicating as we age. Over time this loss of communication reduces the cell’s ability to make energy, and aging accelerates. But boosting a cell’s NAD levels, which decrease with age, helps restore communication.
“The aging process we discovered is like a married couple — when they are young, they communicate well, but over time, living in close quarters for many years, communication breaks down,” said Sinclair. “And just like with a couple, restoring communication solved the problem.”
Dr. Ana Gomes, a postdoctoral scientist in the Harvard lab, found that by administering a compound that cells transform into NAD, the broken network can be repaired and communication and mitochondrial function rapidly restored. If the compound was given early enough, some aspects of the aging process could be reversed. She told the BBC that the research group wants to begin clinical trials in 2015:
Dr. Gomes said human therapies were a distant prospect but: “From what we know so far we don’t think you’d have to take it from 20 years until we die.
“It seems we can start when we’re already old, but not too old that we’re already damaged.
“If started at 40 you would probably have a much nicer window of health aging — but I would guess that, we have to do clinical trials.”
Meanwhile, in another development, scientists at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in Novato announced they have found a way to vastly expand the lifespan of nematodes, or roundworms, by combining “mutations in two pathways well-known for lifespan extension.” The researchers hypothesized that the worms’ lifespan would increase by about 130 percent. Instead, their lifespan increased by five times — meaning the nematodes lived to the human equivalent of 400 to 500 years.
Kapahi said in addition to implications for human life extension, the study’s results could also lead to new approaches for battling age-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Kapahi said the research suggests the possibility of employing combination therapies for aging in much the same way as is done for cancer and HIV.
There have also been two recent developments in who is funding anti-aging research, both in Silicon Valley.
Such funding took a major hit last August when the Ellison Medical Foundation, with Oracle’s Larry Ellison’s as its chair, decided to stop making new grants, after 15 years as one of the leading sources of funding in the field.
As reported in San Francisco Business Times last week, this came as a shock to researchers, who had come to depend on the foundation’s 4-year awards. Established in 1997, the foundation has awarded nearly $430 million in grants, with an estimated 80 percent of that going to anti-aging researchers — including those at Stanford, UC Berkeley and the Buck Institute.
But a Google-backed venture, Calico, looks to have come to the rescue. Calico was formed three months ago to focus on anti-aging research. CEO — and former Genentech CEO — Arthur Levinson recently recruited some of the biggest names in the industry, including Roche chief medical officer Hal Barron and David Botstein, of the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics (both Genentech alums), and UC San Francisco researcher/professor Dr. Cynthia Kenyon.