The fountain of youth may not be just the stuff of legend. Scientists from the Salk Institute in California say that the aging process may in fact be reversible.
The provocative claim comes from the findings of a new study, which discovered 'embryonic state genes' — stem cells created with embryonic properties from reprogrammed adult cells — that can reverse the tell-tale signs of old age.
In the lab, this novel type of gene therapy was tested on mice and human skin cells. The human skin cells in petri dishes changed to look and behave young again, while the mice enjoyed a similar rejuvenating experience.
After six weeks of treatment, the animals looked younger, had straighter spines, better cardiovascular health, healed quicker when injured, and lived 30 percent longer.
Lead scientist, Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, said:
"Aging is something plastic that we can manipulate. Our study shows that aging may not have to proceed in one single direction. With careful modulation, aging might be reversed."
It is however, a long stretch from isolated skin cells in a laboratory to practical use on humans. The researchers themselves suggest that clinical applications are a decade away.
Nonetheless, the suggestion that it may be possible to reprogram cells to help people live nearly a third longer, and in better health, are tantalizing.
The study also adds to a growing body of evidence that suggests that the process of aging itself is not merely down to wear and tear over time. Instead, the Salk Institute team suggest that the body has an internal 'clock,' which contributes to an organism's decline.
Salk Institute scientist Izpisua Belmonte said:
"We believe that this approach will not lead to immortality."
However, Mr. Belmonte said the goal was to significantly increase ‘health span', the number of years that someone remains healthy. Currently, aging is associated with several debilitating diseases, including heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer's.
"There are probably still limits that we will face in terms of complete reversal of aging. Our focus is not only extension of lifespan but most importantly health-span," Mr. Belmonte said.