The fountain of youth

This cartoon depicts turning back the aging clock through cellular regeneration of progeria mice. Credit: Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte Lab/Salk Institute

Since the beginning of humans history we have seen the quest for eternal youth. In 1513 Ponce de Leon, a Spanish explorer set foot on Florida, US; according to the myth he was actually looking for the fountain of youth. He was not alone. Over the millennia we have records of several myths, in different forms, recording the quest for some sort of rejuvenation. 

They were just that: myth. 

Yet, in these last years scientists have started to understand the process of ageing and along with it they have started to look for a fountain of youth in a scientific way. And some results are now in sight.

Scientists at the Salk Institute have successfully extended the life span of mice by 30% by reprogramming their cells. Specifically they reprogrammed skin cells transforming them into iPS (induced pluripotent stem) cells that in turns can be programmed to become any kind of cell. This was done by inducing the expression of four epigenetic marks (Yamanaka factors) allowing the cells to grow into adult specialised cells without any defect.
They have been experimenting with a special breed of mice that has a short life span and have found out that it is possible to "reverse" the ageing process. Those mice are not just living longer, they have their age-clock rewound, they get younger!

Messing with the cells clock is tricky. In previous experiments this has resulted in sudden death or in the development of tumours.  At Salk the scientists have been working on a partial cell reprogramming and this has not given rise to any side effects (so far).

Has the fountain of youth been discovered? Not quite. It will take probably several decades before we have sufficient data to support trials in humans but for sure the myth is now moving into the science realm.

Notice that an extension of 30% of "youth" and then of the life span, is bound to have  enormous ethical (who will be able to afford it?) and economic implications. We are just not ready to face this challenge. However, there will be time, for my grandchildren, to confront with it...

Author - Roberto Saracco

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