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Tuesday, May 06, 2014

The Future of Ageing Youthfully

"We do think that, at least in principle, there will be a way to reverse some of the decline of ageing with a single protein. It isn't out of question that GDF11, or a drug developed from it, might be worthwhile in [treating] Alzheimer's disease."
Professor Lee Rubin, Harvard stem cell biologist

"Although the treatments tested here rejuvenate certain aspects of learning and memory in mice, these studies are of unknown significance to humans."
Dr. Eric Karran, Alzheimer's Research UK

"This should give us all hope for a healthier future. We all wonder why we were stronger and mentally more agile when young, and these two unusually exciting papers actually point to a possible answer."
"There seems to be little question that GDF11 has an amazing capacity to restore ageing muscle and brain function."
Professor Doug Melton, department of stem cell and regenerative biology, Harvard University
Photo: Fountain of Youth illustration
This painting by 19th Century Austrian artist Eduard Veith shows a scene at the mythical Fountain of Youth. Throughout history, people have sought magical ways to restore their youth. Photograph by Fine Art Photographic Library/CORBIS

From time immemorial humans have wondered why they age past their prime, bereaved by the reality of growing old and dying. When we would so much more prefer to continue living. Not necessarily in reflection of our dotage years, but in the full glory of youth. A mythical Fountain of Youth was thought to exist somewhere, and it was sought everywhere. The man whose name is most associated with that evanescent glimmering of hope was Ponce de Leon, a 16th Century explorer/conquistador.

Who might have imagined that some element approximating a fountain of youth could be discovered within our own bodies? The sinister stories of night-predators requiring the blood of humans to remain vital and alive, gave rise to the fearful mythology of vampires inhabiting the dark night hours and rabidly searching out victims, the favourite among whom would typically be beautiful young women their fangs would withdraw blood from.

The truth is somewhere in there, neither sinister nor transcendentally exquisite, but full of its own beauty through Nature's exquisite design. American scientists now believe that transfusions of 'young' blood might conceivably reverse the process of ageing. And even, dare we  hope, cure Alzheimer's disease. Researchers discovered that young blood held the potential of recharging the brain, forming new blood vessels to enhance memory and learning capabilities.

Another research finding where Harvard University scientists discovered a "youth protein" circulating in the blood of the young, known for maintaining the brain and muscles with the strength of youth was published in the journal Science found. The protein has been labelled GDF11, present in large quantities in the bloodstream of the young, but which begins to reduce in presence as we age.

It was through the research conducted on mice that these discoveries were made. And, naturally enough scientists hold out high hope that their findings will be translatable to human biology. Within the next two to three years human trials are set to begin, and the anticipation is that the results will accelerate improvement for human health and possibly longevity.

Dr. Melton's team from Harvard discovered that the protein named GDF11 could repair damaged hearts. More than that, a new study demonstrated that raising the levels of the GDF11 protein in older mice resulted in an improvement of the function of every body organ. It is thought that there is a connection between young blood and youth protein, explaining how it is that young blood reverses ageing.

Biological structural, molecular and functional changes were identified in the brains of 18-month-old mice closing in on their natural life span that had been repeatedly injected with the blood of three-month-old mice. The elderly mice developed improved memory and learning ability. Should similar results be seen in human trials, new therapies could be formulated for revitalizing ageing brains, and new drugs produced for treating dementia.

"We've shown that at least some age-related impairments in brain function are reversible. They're not final", explained Dr. Saul Villeda, of Stanford's School of Medicine. Evidence was also identified of new connections forming in the hippocampus, a brain region given to memory and sensitive to ageing.

File:Lucas Cranach d. Ä. 007.jpg
The Fountain of Youth, 1546 painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder.

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