A team led by renowned Harvard Medical School anti-aging researcher David Sinclair has just published a paper showing that a combination of chemicals can reverse cellular aging… in just four days.
If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. So far the evidence is only in human cells in the lab – we are a long way from testing this in animal models, and even further from human trials.
But the basic principle is, at least, very interesting, even if rolling back the clock in individual cell lines is far from showing that it is possible to improve age-related health factors in living animals.
“We identify six chemical cocktails, which, in less than a week and without disrupting cellular identity, reset a genome-wide transcriptional profile of youth and reverse transcriptional aging,” Sinclair and a team of 17 other researchers write in the journal Getting old.
“Therefore, rejuvenation through age reversal can be achieved not only through genetic methods, but also chemical methods.”
Taken out of the context of the cell level, however, that is a very bold claim, given how early in the process this research is. So it’s no surprise that there is already some controversy surrounding this paper. Let’s break it down.
The study looked at the way cells lose information as they age – specifically epigenetic information.
As they age, our cells go from unlimited potential when we have embryos to differentiating into one particular cell type, and eventually getting old and out of functionality.
In 2012, Shinya Yamanaka and Sir John B. Gurdon won the Nobel Prize for exhibitions this process can actually be reversed. They found to turn on as it is called Yamanaka factors (OCT4, SOX2, and KLF4) in mammals can turn adult cells back into induced pluripotent stem cells with unlimited potential.
A few years later, showed a team of researchers that even these Yamanaka factors in mice temporarily made the rodents healthier.
Since then, the race has been on to implement the same thing in humans, but without turning cancer cells – which is a risk when you give cells the ability to divide endlessly.
But all that work involves gene therapy – introducing Yamanka factor genes using a virus – which is expensive, controversial, and not without complications.
The challenge is to find a way to achieve the same results using chemicals that could be turned into a drug or therapy – and this Sinclair says they have now done.
“Until recently, the best we could do was slow aging. New discoveries suggest we can now reverse it,” says Sinclair.
“This process previously required gene therapy, which limited its widespread use.”
To figure this out, the team developed a system that differentiates between young and senescent cells.
Instead of looking at genetic factors associated with aging, they also looked for real-time rates of nucleocytoplasmic protein (NCC) division – as it turns out, old cells have leaky nuclear membranes.
Using this screening method, the team then showed that they could reverse the rates of NCC in human senescent cells so that they resembled young cells again by using six different chemical cocktails.
Below is a graph showing the different cocktails (C 1 to 6) tested on old percolated cells compared to their silent cell, which serves as a control, compared to data on biological aging from rodents and other human cells. Age is plotted on the vertical axis.
The team is keeping the recipes of these cocktails to themselves for the time being, although Sinclair is He said on Twitter that they have since found more than the six in the paper.
The controversy isn’t really the study itself, but the claim that they’ve found some sort of anti-aging elixir when no animal models have actually been tested.
“This new discovery offers the potential to reverse aging with a single pill, with applications ranging from improving eyesight to effectively treating numerous age-related diseases,” Sinclair said in a press release.
But although researchers say The new technique developed to filter the cells has promise, it is too early to draw such conclusions.
It’s a sad sign of the times that this even needs to be said, but headlines are demanding @Harvard researchers developed a chemical approach to aging aging that is not true. No one has a drug to reverse aging. @elonmusk and everyone else, please don’t start assuming anything based on this nonsense https://t.co/9GQzwATkcL
— Matt Kaeberlein (@mkaeberlein) July 15, 2023
“This is a preliminary report of a new screening method in a single cell line using indirect measures of epigenetic state. There is no evidence here for reprogramming in a tissue, organ, or whole animal,” Kaeberlein wrote on Twitter.
Still, with many of us living longer now than ever before, researchers will always be looking for ways to help us stay healthy longer, and this could be an important first step. We just have to take it with a large grain of salt.
The research is published in Getting old.