Nov. 28 (Bloomberg) -- Scientists have reversed signs of aging in mice by manipulating a gene crucial to the health of chromosomes that wither over time, suggesting new routes to treatments for age-related conditions.
Researchers started by breeding mice with tissue damage and signs of advanced age, including dysfunctional telomeres that sit on the ends of chromosomes and protect them from degeneration. The mice had shriveled testes, atrophied spleens, damaged intestines and shrunken brains. The scientists then activated the rodents’ dormant telomerase gene, which makes the enzyme needed for healthy telomeres, and monitored the animals, according to the study published today in the journal Nature.
The experiment reversed infertility in the mice, restored their sense of smell, improved brain function and led to longer life. The findings suggest a potential path to therapies for syndromes marked by premature aging and damaged telomeres, though any human use remains years in the future, said Ronald A. DePinho, senior author of the paper and director of applied cancer science at the Boston-based Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
“When we flipped the telomerase switch on and looked a month later, the brains had largely returned to normal,” said DePinho, professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School. “It was akin to a Ponce de Leon effect,” he said, referring to the Spanish explorer who scoured Florida for the fountain of youth.
Damage to the telomeres causes cells to stop dividing, stem cells to become dormant, organs to atrophy and brain cells to die, the researchers said. Reinvigorating them may allow the body to revive stem cells, rejuvenate tissue and maintain good health during the aging process, DePinho said.
The mice had increased levels of telomerase, longer telomeres, new neurons and additional protection around their nerve cells, the study found. The National Institutes of Health and the Belfer Foundation helped fund the research.
It’s not yet clear whether manipulating the telomerase gene may ease the signs and symptoms of normal aging, DePinho said in a statement.
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