From the sounds of things a Wolverine style regeneration trick might be round the corner for humanity, or at least those of us who can afford it. It’s in its early stages but tired and feeble laboratory mice have already had their elderly bodies regenerated according to The Guardian:
The surprise recovery of the animals has raised hopes among scientists that it may be possible to achieve a similar feat in humans – or at least to slow down the ageing process.
An anti-ageing therapy could have a dramatic impact on public health by reducing the burden of age-related health problems, such as dementia, stroke and heart disease, and prolonging the quality of life for an increasingly aged population.
“What we saw in these animals was not a slowing down or stabilisation of the ageing process. We saw a dramatic reversal – and that was unexpected,” said Ronald DePinho, who led the study, which was published in the journal Nature.
“This could lead to strategies that enhance the regenerative potential of organs as individuals age and so increase their quality of life. Whether it serves to increase longevity is a question we are not yet in a position to answer.”
The ageing process is poorly understood, but scientists know it is caused by many factors. Highly reactive particles called free radicals are made naturally in the body and cause damage to cells, while smoking, ultraviolet light and other environmental factors contribute to ageing.
The Harvard group focused on a process called telomere shortening. Most cells in the body contain 23 pairs of chromosomes, which carry our DNA. At the ends of each chromosome is a protective cap called a telomere. Each time a cell divides, the telomeres are snipped shorter, until eventually they stop working and the cell dies or goes into a suspended state called “senescence”. The process is behind much of the wear and tear associated with ageing.
At Harvard, they bred genetically manipulated mice that lacked an enzyme called telomerase that stops telomeres getting shorter. Without the enzyme, the mice aged prematurely and suffered ailments, including a poor sense of smell, smaller brain size, infertility and damaged intestines and spleens. But when DePinho gave the mice injections to reactivate the enzyme, it repaired the damaged tissues and reversed the signs of ageing.
“These were severely aged animals, but after a month of treatment they showed a substantial restoration, including the growth of new neurons in their brains,” said DePinho.
Repeating the trick in humans will be more difficult. Mice make telomerase throughout their lives, but the enzyme is switched off in adult humans, an evolutionary compromise that stops cells growing out of control and turning into cancer. Raising levels of telomerase in people might slow the ageing process, but it makes the risk of cancer soar.
The Nature piece is here: Telomerase reactivation reverses tissue degeneration in aged telomerase-deficient mice.
The consequences of conquering or dramatically postponing death would of course be far reaching. What interests me is the probability that such treatments would be the preserve only of the richest members of global society. Generally intellectual progress is often made when previous generations die, leaving their successors to try new ideas without being berrated by thinkers who have often become stuck in their ways.
If science were to unlock the secret of significantly longer lasting lifespans would ‘living forever’ ultimately bring enlightenment to those individuals, as in the film ‘Groundhog Day’, or would we be condemning ourselves to modes of thought holding dominion over us for longer than humanity has previously had to tolerate?
Nick Margerrison (my twitter here)