Stop, rewind: the scientists slowing the ageing process

woman and child The ageing process has been linked with many biological mechanisms

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Scientists are slowly unlocking the secrets of ageing, and some suggest treatments may soon be at hand to slow or even reverse the ageing process.

But what can science really achieve, and what are the dangers of meddling with our biological clocks?

Could such treatments induce cancers in humans, for example, and what about the world's burgeoning population and the West's "pension time bomb"?

Chromosome tips

The ageing process is a complex one, and for long remained an impenetrable mystery, but progress is now being made.

Late last year, a team at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston published a Nature paper in which they detailed the reversing of the ageing process in mice.

They targeted the chromosomes that reside within the nuclei of all cells, and specifically telomeres, caps at the tips of chromosomes. The telomeres protect the chromosomes from damage, but also shorten with age, until the cells are no longer able to replicate.

Start Quote

By understanding the ageing process, we can help combat arthritis, diabetes and heart disease”

End Quote Professor Tim Spector King's College London

Professor Ronald DePinho and colleagues manipulated the enzyme that regulates these tips - known as telomerase - and witnessed dramatic results. Mice engineered to lack the enzyme aged prematurely, but when the enzyme was replaced, the mice appeared to rewind the clock.

The BBC's Neil Bowdler reports on the science of ageing

"What we were expecting was a slowing or stabilisation of the ageing process," he told the BBC. "Instead we witnessed a dramatic reversal in the signs and symptoms of ageing."

"These animals had their brains increase in size, they improved their cognition, their coat-hair was restored to a healthy sheen and their fertility was also restored."

Of course, this was a story of mice, not men, and applying such principles to humans could be an altogether bigger challenge. Telomerase has been linked with cancer, and there are likely to be many other mechanisms involved in ageing.

Many believe mitochondria may play a bigger role - genetic material contained within the cell but outside the nucleus. Mitochondria are the "power houses" of cells, but have also been seen to generate harmful chemicals linked with aging.

Then there is the role played by free radicals, highly reactive atoms or molecules that attack our bodies.

Anti-ageing drug

But even though a comprehensive picture of how we age is still to be constructed, there are scientists who are already testing anti-ageing treatments on humans.

Chromosome with telomeres at tips Telomeres (in red) are found at the ends of each chromosome, and shorten with age

Professor David Sinclair also works in Boston at an ageing laboratory at Harvard Medical School. He and his colleagues have been working on synthetic drugs called "Sirtuin activating compounds" or STACs.

Animal studies have indicated STACs can restore the health and life prospects of obese mice and early-stage trials in humans are now underway.

The research follows earlier work on resveratrol, a naturally-occurring ingredient of red wine. Both resveratrol and STACs appear to mimic the effects of restricting calorie intake, which has been seen to slow ageing in animals.

"This isn't going to be an excuse to eat French fries all day and watch TV but is a way to augment your healthy lifestyle and give you the ultimate benefits of perfect health which your body is capable of," Professor Sinclair told the BBC.

"It doesn't change food intake - the mice eat just normally or they get fatter, but their body doesn't seem to know they're fat and their organs and even their longevity is as good as a really healthy mouse."

But should we be experimenting with something so fundamental as ageing in the first place? And what of the ethical issues?

Professor Tim Spector of King's College London, who also works on the ageing process, says the focus is not on extending life, but on extending good health.

"If it means by living a long time you're crippled by arthritis and can't get out of the house that's not much use to anyone."

"But by understanding the ageing process, we can help combat arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, all these things which are age-related."

Professor James Goodwin, head of research at Age UK, believes access will quickly emerge as a key issue, should effective anti-ageing medical treatments be developed.

"Will everybody be able to get this technology which will give them a longer healthier life, or will it be restricted to the rich and wealthy?" he asks.

"Or how will the poorer countries regard the richer countries of the world where everyone is living well and living longer?"


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  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    And yet people will still want to retire at 65 even if they live to 400.

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    Once they have this figured out, perhaps science will work on 'why are we here' in the first place. The older I get the more I ask but still can't figure it out!

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    With the world already over populated, if "Miracle Day" ever becomes true, the Touchwood saga will bare little resplendence to the true horror which will result.

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    3. Ady. The Brain degenerates at a fixed rate.

    So as well as not reading, I assume you do not listen either! What a ridiculous comment to make on the subject of 'Scientists slowing the ageing process'. Further down it states that in mice they have even seen a reversal. In case you miss the point that means they have reversed the degeneration.

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    Its only for the rich.

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    Anti-ageing is not difficult. I'm 50 and everyone says I look 30-35. I stay fit and healthy and most importantly, I keep a positive outlook and enjoy myself wherever I can. I fear that any developments will only be used to increase all the "rubbish" in our lives, that ages us. You don't stop playing because you get older, you get older because you stop playing

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    34. adgwytc. Not much good really because with my family if it comes to room in the freezer drawer between me and the Cumberland sausages, can you guess? Incidentally is it really necessary to make a political argument out of everything. Name calling achieves zip! Camerons fault this and Camerons fault that, what a load of old tosh.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    36. Billy The Bull. Sounds like preaching to me! Surely you accept that Gods will is down to an individuals belief and for me every person that invents a way to improve life and conquer disease is God. If Darwin has it right then an awful lot of people (I would argue all people) have a heck of a shock coming. For instance 17 virgins, I don't think so. Prove me wrong, I don't think so!

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    Discover the ageing gene and ways to manipulate it and surely the less complicated the ability to reverse cancers. But stand by for the God(s) brigade to make a show. And what are ethics anyway?

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    I can only really see commercial benefits masquerading as genuine medical issues, once this becomes mainstream ethics will leave via the window!

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    The government would like to be able to have an annual cull of old people, but of course they cannot (except by withholding "unaffordable" treatments which could otherwise be offered by the NHS). That way the cull is carried out "invisibly". My aim is to draw more in pensions that I earned whilst working. 40 years in work. 60 years in retirement.

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    Ref # 46. barryp

    We have been 'Playing God' for hundreds of years.

    MAN !! CREATED GOD ( in is own image )





  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    oh dear ...........

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    "Re Phosgene @28
    Well said, and let's not forget it's the financial expert fatcats that has the western world in financial chaos."
    You seem to think that packaging debt as an asset counts as "expertise". Keep on whinging, Colin.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    I hope they hurryup. I need it - Fast!

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    Re Phosgene @28

    Well said, and let's not forget it's the financial expert fatcats that has the western world in financial chaos.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    We have been 'Playing God' for hundreds of years, since the first Doctor prevented a death. Lets not let spurious ethics interfere with the prospect of removal of Illness and decay. It may well be that there are serious drawbacks with the research, but in 200 years long life will be looked on as normal.The problems will speak for themselves and society will change to encompass the result.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    Wise Old Bob - you're missing out the biggest worry of all... Madonna

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    36. Billy The Bull



    He told us to allow the unwashed to camp outside our cathedrals

    Even better than that he specifically instructed them to wash each other's feet!

    Who else thinks that these treatments will simply lead to more wrinklies like Cher and Iggy Pop strutting their stuff far to far into dotage?

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    Aging is great...for most of us it is a time when get your head together and then find its your body that comes apart. A natural process IMO which makes you slow down and reflect, inwardly knowing 'you've been there, done that.'


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