There’s no doubt that research into ageing and extending the lifespan of humans and animals has become a serious endeavor. And it seems we are slowly unlocking the mystery of how to reverse the ageing process.
Often referred to as the ‘eternal fountain of youth’, ageing research is now seeking to not only tackle individual diseases, but rather treat all the diseases the arise in old age, all at once. New research is proving that slowing down the degenerative process of ageing may be closer than we think.
Out with the old
Scientists have recently discovered three new agents that aim to delay ageing by targeting certain cells – called senescent cells. Senescent cells are a type of cell that contributes to frailty and other age related conditions.
This anti-ageing strategy is called senolysis – that is, killing off old and damaged or ‘senescent’ cells. These cells take up space, grow larger, and release substances that cause inflammation.
Published in the online journal Ageing, the researchers revealed that the death of senescent cells might not only promote a longer life, but also reduce illnesses associated with age. It was found that when mice were genetically engineered so that it is possible to kill off senescent cells, health drastically improved and their lifespans increased between 17 per cent and 35 per cent.
The breakthrough highlights senescence as not only a key in the biological basis of ageing, but also in the prevention of health problems such as cancers and kidney problems. The researchers note that although the immune system clears the senescent cells on a regular basis, this mechanism gradually becomes less effective as we age.
There’s no doubt that this research opens a new front in an already multi-pronged war against ageing. If the study passes clinical trials and proves translatable to humans, the prospects are exciting and could have a profound impact on our health.
Our DNA changes as we get older. For example, structures that cap the ends of our chromosomes (which carry our genes) called telomeres shorten with old age or stress. This results in physiological changes in the body, which increases the risk of the major conditions and diseases of ageing: cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, a weakened immune system and more.
Professor Elizabeth Blackburn from Tasmania shared the 2009 Nobel Prize for Medicine for her research on telomeres. She discovered that the telomerase enzyme can add DNA to the ends of chromosomes to slow, prevent and partially reverse the shortening of our telomeres which contributes to ageing and disease.
Professor Blackburn proved that to lengthen telomeres (or stop them shortening) improving lifestyle by managing chronic stress, exercising, eating better and getting enough sleep could lead to long term habits that make a difference.
In another anti-ageing strategy, researchers from the University of New South Wales in Australia discovered a vitamin called nictotinamide mononucleotide (NMN) that helps repair
DNA damage. The researchers treated mice with NMN, finding it caused an improvement in their cells’ ability to repair DNA damage caused by radiation exposure or old age. After just one week of treatment the researchers noted that the cells of the old mice were indistinguishable from the younger mice.
What’s more is that the research won NASA’s iTech competition because of its potential use in the planned 2025 mission to Mars. Yep, wow. On short missions, astronauts experience accelerated ageing from cosmic radiation, suffering from muscle weakness, memory loss and other symptoms when they return. On a trip to Mars, five per cent of the astronauts’ cells would die and their chances of cancer would approach 100 per cent. It’s hoped this vitamin might be able to reverse that damage.
Back on earth, researchers believe NMN could also help every human defy the ageing process and stay healthy as it has the potential to overcome the side effects of cancer radiotherapy and chemotherapy, especially with children.
Although these drugs haven’t reached the market just yet, they nevertheless offer a glimpse into the remarkable possibilities that lie ahead for the treatment of underlying ageing and potentially a whole range of ageing conditions.