Aging, as a process, still remains a mystery to modern science. We know that it’s not just one thing that causes the symptoms of aging which is what makes it so hard to find a miracle compound that erases everything. Still we’ve made some pretty good progress in combating some parts of the aging process, many of which can be used to make our lives not only longer but also far more healthier throughout. The latest research from scientists at the Mayo clinic shows yet another potential pathway for delaying the onset of age related diseases and conditions, giving mice up to 35% longer lives.
The mechanism that the researchers focused on is called cellular senescence. Our cells constantly reproduce themselves through division, a process which repeats for each cell approximately 40 to 60 times before it enters a stage called cellular senescence. In this stage the cell’s telomeres, a kind of nucleotide that protects a cell’s DNA from damage, is shortened to the point where it can no longer provide the protection the cell needs. In this stage the cell will no longer divide but still remains active. Eventually these senescent cells are cleaned out by the body’s immune system but as we age this process starts to slow down and become less efficient.
The Mayo researchers used an existing transgene line, called INK-ATTAC, to induce cell death in these senescent cells. This was triggered by twice weekly injections into two different lines of lab mice who were then compared to a control. The results were incredibly impressive, showing an improvement in overall lifespan of the mice from 17% to 35%. The mice also showed no side effects from the treatment with healthy major organ function retained throughout their extended life. Suffice to say a treatment of this nature would appear to be of incredible benefit to many, especially those who are seeking more healthy years than just an extended lifespan.
Such a treatment is probably many years away from reaching humans however, mostly due to the fact that the use of transgenes in humans is still an open area of bioethical debate. Indeed whilst the consensus for using such treatments for curative purposes appears to be largely agreed upon therapeutic uses such as these are still something of a grey area. Transgenes like this one are still very much an area of active research however and there are likely to be many more such treatments like these developed in the coming years. Hopefully the regulatory and ethical frameworks will be able to keep up with the rapid pace of innovation as treatments like these are invaluable in treating the one condition that affects all humans universally.
Aging is one of the most complex and nuanced processes that our body goes through, radically transforming us over the course of several decades. Whilst some of the basic mechanisms are well understood, like accumulated damage to DNA during its reproduction, the rest remains something of a mystery. Indeed once we get into the extreme end of the spectrum the factors that seem to influence longevity become a lot more muddled, with many octogenarians engaging in behaviours that would appear to be the antithesis to living longer. Still our quest for the proverbial fountain of youth has had us searching through the many different mechanisms at play in the aging process and it seems that the blood of our young might hold the clues to a longer life.
Two pieces of recent research point towards some interesting evidence that shows the radical differences between the blood of the young and the elderly. Hendrikje van Andel-Schipper was once the oldest woman in the world, reaching the ripe old age of 115 in the year 2005. She was in remarkable condition for her age, remaining mentally aware and alert right up until her death. In a great boon to the greater scientific community she donated her body for study giving us unprecedented insight into what happens to us as we age. That, combined with some recent research data coming at this from a different perspective, shows that the contents of our blood changes dramatically as we age and, possibly, that we could reinvigorate ourselves with transfusions from our younger selves.
At the end of her life all of Hendrikje’s white blood cells, the ones responsible for fighting off infections, came from a mere 2 stem cells. It is estimated that we begin our lives with around 20,000 such cells with around 5% of them working at any one time to replenish our white cell supply. The fact that Hendrikje had only two function stem cells remaining points to an upper limit on the natural human age as once you stop producing white blood cells it wouldn’t take long for your body to succumb to any number of diseases. Curiously though this also hints a potential pathway to reinvigorate individuals whose white cell count has deteriorated, by injecting them with their own blood (or potentially someone else’s) taken from many years previous.
That part was mostly conjecture on the part of the researchers but recent results from a study at Stanford University have shown that old mice injected with the blood of younger mice show significant improvement in cognitive function. Whilst this isn’t likely to be the same mechanism that the previous research may have indicated (blood plasma with the proteins denatured in it didn’t achieve the same result) it does point towards a potential therapeutic pathway for combating some age related maladies. Of course whether this translates into a human model remains to be seen and who knows if this kind of thing would get passed an ethics tribunal.
Indeed research of this nature opens up all sorts of ethical questions as if it’s shown that blood transfusions can improve the quality of life of patients then it becomes imperative for doctors to use it. With blood supplies always being in high demand the question of where they can do the most good comes to the forefront, a troubled area that really has no good answers. Still if you could better the life of another, most likely a relative, by simply giving blood I’m sure many of us would do it, but the larger question of voluntary donations still remains.
There’s also some potentially dark sci-fi film in here about people being bled dry in order to feed an underground transfusion market but I’ll leave that one up to your imagination.