Mice get all the interesting experiments! A new study released on Nov. 28 explained how Harvard researchers reversed the aging process in genetically altered mice. Now, I don’t know about you, but the first question I asked was, “What kind of physiological changes need to happen for that to even be a possibility?” While mice are known to be good indications of how humans may react to treatments for disease, or alterations to our body’s physiological system, it still makes me hesitate a little bit. However, mice have, in the words of the study’s lead author Dr. Ronald DePinho, “illuminated a path toward understanding human disease.” So, let’s talk about old mice reaching into that Fountain of Youth.
Dr. DePinho is the director of the Belfer Institute at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. He said the mice used for the experiment were genetically altered to have tons of serious DNA damage. We’re talking DNA damage that equals rapid aging, shrunken brains, loss of cognition, gray fur and infertility. Then, poof! Right as these mice were on the verge of kicking the bucket (equivalent to the 8th or 9th decade of life in humans – these are Dr. DePinho’s words, not mine), researchers repaired the damaged DNA. Dr. DePinho said the aged tissues retained a “remarkable capacity to rejuvenate,” proving there IS a point of return.
These mice were deficient in telomerase, an enzyme which rebuilds the ends of chromosomes known as telomeres. As the aging process occurs, the telomeres begin to “fray.” Shorter telomere length and excessive fraying has been correlated with fewer years of healthy living past 60. When researchers “flipped the switch” and turned the enzyme telomerase “on,” the mice began to exhibit signs of aging reversal. They had dramatic restoration in many aspects of aging, including an increase in brain size, improved cognition, their coat was restored to a healthy sheen, and their fertility was restored.
Just to give you a little bit of background information on telomerase… Jack Szostak of Massachusetts General Hospital was one of three researchers awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of telomeres and telomerase – the caps of chromosomes and the enzyme that rebuilds them.
Dr. DePinho said in multiple televised interviews that researchers are years – decades even – away from reversing and even slowing down the aging process in human beings. Research is being done presently to delve further into age reversal, but no studies yet have looked at the impact of sustained restoration of telomeres. It looks like we’ll just have to wait another lifetime for that.
Check out the interview with Dr. DePinho and the Boston Globe.
Photo Credit: TEASSARE TS Rogers Illustration and Design