Scientists have discovered how to reverse the aging process in mice. Now they turn their attention to people
In the lab of molecular biologist David Sinclair at Harvard Medical School, old mice become young again.
Using proteins that can turn an adult cell into a stem cell, Sinclair and his team reverted aging cells in mice to earlier versions of themselves.
In his team’s first breakthrough, published in late 2020, old mice with poor eyesight and damaged retinas could suddenly see again, with a vision that sometimes rivaled their offspring’s.
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“It’s a permanent reset, as far as we can tell, and we think it could be a universal process that can be applied all over the body to reset our age,” said Sinclair, who has spent the past 20 years working on it. Studying ways to stand the test of time.
“If we reverse aging, these diseases should not occur.
“We have the technology today to go into your hundreds without worrying about cancer in your 70s, heart disease in your 80s, and Alzheimer’s in your 90s,” Sinclair told an audience about Life Itself, a health and wellness event presented with CNN.
“This is the world to come. It’s a matter of when and for most of us, it will happen in our lives,” Sinclair told the audience.
Whitney Casey, an investor working with Sinclair to create a DIY biological age test, said Sinclair wants to turn aging into a disease.
These mice are brother and sister, born from the same litter. One is genetically altered to be old. Now scientists say they may have been able to reverse aging, too. Credit: CNN
“His research shows you can alter aging to make lives younger for longer, she said.
While modern medicine addresses disease, it doesn’t address the underlying cause, “which for most diseases is aging itself,” Sinclair said.
“We know that when we reverse the age of an organ like the brain in a mouse, the age-related diseases disappear. The memory returns; there is no more dementia,” she said.
“I believe that delaying and reversing aging will be the best way to treat the diseases that plague most of us in the future.”
In Sinclair’s lab, two mice sit side by side. One is the image of youth, the other gray and feeble.
Yet they are brother and sister, born of the same litter – only one has been genetically altered to age faster.
Scientists keep trying to reverse the aging process. Credit: Getty Images
If that were possible, Sinclair asked his team, could the reverse be achieved? Japanese biomedical researcher Shinya Yamanaka had already reprogrammed human adult skin cells to behave like embryonic or pluripotent stem cells, which can develop into any cell in the body.
The 2007 discovery earned the scientist a Nobel Prize, and his “induced pluripotent stem cells” soon became known as “Yamanaka factors.”
However, adult cells that have completely switched back to stem cells via Yamanaka factors lose their identity.
They forget they are blood, heart, and skin cells, making them perfect for rebirth as a ‘cell du jour’ but bad at rejuvenation.
You don’t want Brad Pitt to suddenly become a baby in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”; you want him to age backward while still remembering who he is.
Labs around the world jumped on the problem. A study published in 2016 by researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif., showed that signs of aging can be obliterated in genetically aged mice exposed for short periods to four key Yamanaka factors without the identity of clear the cells.
But there was a downside to all this research: In certain situations, the altered mice developed cancerous tumors.
Looking for a safer alternative, Sinclair lab’s geneticist Yuancheng Lu chose three of the four factors and genetically added them to a harmless virus.
The virus is designed to deliver the rejuvenating Yamanaka factors to damaged retinal ganglion cells at the back of an old mouse’s eye. After the virus was injected into the eye, the pluripotent genes were turned on by giving the mouse an antibiotic.
“The antibiotic is just a tool. It could be any chemical; just ensure the three genes are turned on,” Sinclair said.
“Normally, they are only on in young developing embryos and then go out as we age.”
Amazingly, damaged neurons in the eyes of mice injected with the three cells rejuvenated, and even new axons or projections from the eye grew in the brain.
Since that original study, Sinclair said his lab has reversed aging in the muscles and brains of mice and is now working to rejuvenate a mouse’s entire body.
He added that there is a “backup copy” of information about youthfulness stored in the body.
“I call it the information theory of aging,” he said.
“It’s a loss of information that causes aging cells to forget how they should function and what type of cell they are. And now we can use a reset switch that restores the cell’s ability to read the genome correctly again as if it were young.”