Scientists in the Mayo Clinic have managed to reduce or even completely eliminate the pathology of aging, including wrinkles, cataracts, and muscle atrophy. From the BBC article:
Scientists at the Mayo Clinic, in the US, devised a way to kill all senescent cells in genetically engineered mice.
The animals would age far more quickly than normal, and when they were given a drug, the senescent cells would die.
The researchers looked at three symptoms of old age: formation of cataracts in the eye; the wasting away of muscle tissue; and the loss of fat deposits under the skin, which keep it smooth.
Researchers said the onset of these symptoms was “dramatically delayed” when the animals were treated with the drug.
When it was given after the mice had been allowed to age, there was an improvement in muscle function.
One of the researchers, Dr James Kirkland, said: “I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”
His colleague Dr Jan van Deursen told the BBC: “We were very surprised by the very profound effect. I really think this is very significant.”
The treatment had no effect on lifespan, but that may be due to the type of genetically engineered mouse used.
Senescent cells are those which have stopped dividing. While they help prevent tumors from progressing, and often get cleared out by the immune system, they inevitably build up overtime, contributing to the symptoms of aging. Removing these cells doesn’t stop the actual biological process of aging itself – this isn’t the key to immortality – but they do improve the quality of life at old age, and that is arguably just as important.
This study brings us closer to figuring out the other side of the coin when it comes to increasing longevity – living a long life is one thing, but ensuring that life is worth living in the first place is a whole other matter. Suffering from all manner of debilitating effects – senility, muscle weakness, impaired senses – can make the advantages of a longer lifespan on this Earth moot.
Of course, like good scientists, the researchers are cautioning that this shouldn’t be taken as a done deal. The experiment was just a preliminary one, and was done only with mice – we’re not yet able to simply purge these senescent cells from our own bodies.
But it opens up the prospect of doing so, or at least helping the process along. We can try to devise a drug that stops these cells directly for example. One of the scientists involved noted that younger people are already at the point that their immune systems mostly clean these “aging” cells out – so boosting or priming immunity in some way may preempt the effects of growing old, changing forever the way we view aging or how we define “being old” (which is already being shifted through advances in nutrition and medicine).
Very exciting prospects indeed. If anyone else is interested, check out the original published work in Nature.