Pulse 118: Have Scientists Made People Younger for the First Time?

9 September 2019
Giulio Prisco

Reverse Aging

A small clinical study in California, led by Gregory Fahy, has suggested for the first time that “it might be possible to reverse the body’s epigenetic clock, which measures a person’s biological age,” Nature News reports.

“For one year, nine healthy volunteers took a cocktail of three common drugs - growth hormone and two diabetes medications - and on average shed 2.5 years of their biological ages, measured by analysing marks on a person’s genomes. The participants’ immune systems also showed signs of rejuvenation.”

The results of the study are published in Aging Cell, with the title “Reversal of epigenetic aging and immunosenescent trends in humans.”

The results were a surprise even to the trial organizers. “I’d expected to see slowing down of the clock, but not a reversal,” says geneticist Steve Horvath at UC California, Los Angeles. “That felt kind of futuristic.”

The researchers cautioned that the findings are preliminary because the trial was small and did not include a control arm. However, the research results have set the mind of life extension (and rejuvenation!) enthusiasts on fire, and been avidly covered by the mainstream press.

“Is this the world’s first anti-ageing drug?” wonders New Scientist. “Scientists have made people younger for the first time, or so they think. Nine men took a year-long drug regime that appeared to reverse the ageing process, leaving them one-and-a-half years younger - biologically - than when they started.”

“Fahy and his colleagues gave participants rhGH (recombinant human growth hormone) ... Extra rhGH can trigger diabetes, however, so they added a supplement called dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) and a drug called metformin, which can prevent this from occurring. MRI scans taken at the beginning and end of the trial revealed thymus regeneration, accompanied by improvements in the immune system, in seven of the participants.”

“A new study shows that scientists might be able to not only slow the process of aging but actually reverse it, [Benjamin Button]-style,” Fox News remarks. “[This] gives a tantalizing hint at what may be possible in the not too distant future.”

We’ll keep reporting on this very interesting development. While it’s difficult not to feel enthusiastic, it’s important to remember that many long years of research and testing are needed to confirm these research results, and then more years will be needed to translate these research results into effective anti-aging medications. In the meantime, everyone should take available steps to stay as healthy as possible. For example, sleep enough, but not more than enough (see below).

Synthetic biologists develop long-lived genetic circuits. Bioengineers at UC San Diego have developed a method to significantly extend the life of gene circuits used to instruct microbes to do things like produce and deliver drugs, break down chemicals, and sense the environment. Most circuits synthetic biologists insert into microbes break or vanish after a certain period of time (typically days to weeks) because of various mutations. A research paper published in Science demonstrates that genetic circuits can be kept going much longer.

Mesh nanoelectronics for brain implants. Scientists at Harvard University and other institutions have designed nanoelectronics that look, move, and feel like real neurons. Implanted in the brain, the new mesh nanoelectronics provoke almost no immune response and permits collecting robust data on how individual neurons communicate over time or, in the case of neurological disorders, fail to communicate. This technology, described in a study published in Nature Biotechnology, could offer a better way to treat Alzheimer's disease or post-traumatic stress disorder, control prosthetics, or even enhance cognitive abilities.

DNA changes over time accelerate the aging process. Researchers at Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow have found that DNA changes throughout a person's life can significantly increase their susceptibility to heart conditions and other age-related diseases. The research results, published in Current Biology, suggest that DNA mutations and the associated diseases they cause may accelerate a person's biological age (how old their body appears) faster than their chronological age.

Telomarase promotes cancer growth, but also protects healthy cells. Scientists at University of Maryland and National Institutes of Health have unveiled a new role for the enzyme telomerase, which was previously thought to be turned off in most normal adult cells, except in cancerous tumors where it promotes unlimited cell division. A research paper published in PNAS shows that, as normal healthy adult cells approach cell-death, they produce a burst of telomerase that prevents malignancies and softens the final steps in the aging process.

Healthy sleep patterns protect the heart. Researchers at UC Boulder have shown that too little or too much sleep can boost the risk of heart attack. The study results, obtained with a sample of nearly a half-million participants, are published in Journal of the American College of Cardiology. Compared to those who slept 6 to 9 hours per night, those who slept fewer than six hours were 20 percent more likely to have a heart attack during the study period. Those who slept more than nine hours were 34 percent more likely. The researchers also found that for those at high genetic risk for heart attack, sleeping between 6 and 9 hours nightly can offset that risk.

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