Regardless of one’s philosophy about the pursuit of immortality, scientists keep making breakthroughs that make that goal seem more plausible. The latest of those efforts are two studies conducted by the Harvard Stem Cell Institute and one by Stanford University and University of California at San Francisco researchers that involved injecting the blood of young mice into older mice to reverse the effects of aging.
The initial methodology seems pretty strange: scientists essentially turned two mice into Siamese twins, attaching an old and a young mouse together via their circulatory systems. The older mouse’s brain and muscles benefited from being conjoined, and after a month stem cells in the brain and muscles of the older mouse became more active and produced more neurons and tissue. But the young mice who were joined up with the old mice had the opposite result — they stopped producing as many new cells, and they began to age faster than they otherwise would.
Given those initial results, scientists tried to figure out what it was about the younger mouse’s blood that helped counteract aging in the older mouse. They honed in on a protein called GDF11 that exists in much larger supply in the blood of younger mice and found that injections of that protein or blood transfusions yielded the same results. The old mice who received the blood or protein of a younger mouse were more successful at navigating mazes and had better endurance.
While all different, the three studies generated similar outcomes. One of the Harvard studies focused more on the muscles of the mice and the second focused on the brain. The Stanford researchers have been working on a cure for Alzheimer’s and believe these breakthroughs could revolutionize treatment.
It’s not clear whether the same process will work on humans, what the long-term effects might be (and whether any might be negative), and how much protein or young blood an older person might need, or how often. But these are all questions that could be answered in clinical trials, which one of the Stanford researchers says he hopes to begin right away, especially given that “Right now we can’t do anything for Alzheimer’s patients, and this seems so easy and simple.”
The idea of combating aging represents a shift from disease-specific treatments. Some researchers believe that because many diseases and conditions are associated with aging, studying the effects of aging on the body and learning how to mitigate or reverse them may better get at the root of age-related diseases. There may be trade-offs for this kind of life extension, but I don’t think many people would be sad to see Alzheimer’s or cancer eradicated. People are already using a similar treatment referred to as a “vampire facelift” to rejuvenate the skin. Of course, my brain immediately envisions some kind of facility where young people are drained all of their protein-rich blood, but I think that just means I’ve watched too much Buffy and Battlestar Galactica, and I’m still haunted by The Dark Crystal.