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First Gene Therapy To Extend Life In Adult Organisms May 15, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Longevity.
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Pretty cool news out of Spain today where researchers have announced that for the first time they have successfully extended the life span of adult mice using gene therapy.

Mice treated at the age of one lived longer by 24% on average, and those treated at the age of two, by 13%. The therapy, furthermore, produced an appreciable improvement in the animals’ health, delaying the onset of age-­‐related diseases — like osteoporosis and insulin resistance — and achieving improved readings on aging indicators like neuromuscular coordination.

The gene therapy consisted of treating the animals with a DNA-­modified virus, the viral genes having been replaced by those of the telomerase enzyme, with a key role in aging. Telomerase repairs the extreme ends or tips of chromosomes, known as telomeres, and in doing so slows the cell’s and therefore the body’s biological clock. When the animal is infected, the virus acts as a vehicle depositing the telomerase gene in the cells.

There are a few interesting elements of this study.  First is the obvious excitement (to those of us already alive) of an anti-aging therapy being successfully implemented on adult organisms.  As mentioned elsewhere in the article gene therapy in the past has only been successfully applied to embyonic stages, something which is great news for all our future children but not so encouraging for those who already live with the specter of aging, decrepitude and death.  Second is the interesting fact that the benefits of the treatment seem to be age dependent since older mice did not derive as high a benefit as mice which were treated at a younger age.  This is could possibly mean that the age-related damage accumulated by older mice was to great to be overcome by the treatment or, more likely, that there are other metabolic pathways that play a role in the aging process and which may even become more important as an organisms ages.

What’s most interesting to me though, and the big worry I had about this study until the article allayed my fears, is what the researchers didn’t find: cancer.  The dirty little secret of longer or longer lasting telomeres is that they can be both a curse and a blessing.  While they are indeed correlated with increased longevity and lower rates of age related decline they are also known to be associated with cancerous growths and tumors (considering that cancer is literally out of control cell growth this isn’t that surprising).   People with naturally longer telomeres seem to retain more youthful cells (and therefore a more youthful appearance)  but are also at an increased risk of melanoma.  A telomere treatment that can extend human life span and reduce age-related morbidity without increasing cancer risk would be a holy grail for anti-aging research.

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