New research has shown that a solution may have been found to the problem of biological aging, not only slowing the process down but actually reversing it in a Benjamin Button-like manner.
In a study by scientists from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), volunteers were given a cocktail of three common drugs for one year, including a growth hormone and two diabetes medications, in order to stimulate the regeneration of the thymus gland.
Surprisingly, the researchers discovered that the participants lost an average of 2.5 years on their “epigenetic clock,” measured by analyzing the marks on a person’s genomes. The participants immune systems also revealed sure signs of rejuvenation, according to a study published in the journal Nature.
UCLA geneticist Steve Horvath, who conducted the epigenetic analysis, commented:
“I’d expected to see slowing down of the clock, but not a reversal. That felt kind of futuristic.”
While the scientists were shocked by the results of the study, they are cautioning that the findings remain preliminary due to the small scale of the trial—which only included nine people—and the lack of a control arm.
Cell biologist Wolfgang Wagner from the University of Aachen in Germany said:
“It may be that there is an effect. But the results are not rock solid because the study is very small and not well controlled.”
Nevertheless, if the study’s outcome is confirmed, its impact on humankind’s relationship with infectious disease and aging itself could be profound.
The epigenetic clock is measured through a record of chemical modifications to an organism’s DNA, with the pattern of such changes reflecting a person’s biological age, which can either exceed or lag behind a person’s chronological age.
The main purpose of the trial was to test if growth hormones could regenerate the tissue of the thymus gland, which lies in the chest between the breastbone and the lungs and plays a crucial role in human immune functions. The gland shrinks following puberty before it increasingly becomes clogged with fat.
Past studies on animals and humans have shown that the growth hormone does stimulate the regrowth of the thymus, but the hormone can also promote diabetes, hence the use of the two anti-diabetic drugs dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) and metformin in the most recent study.
The scientists largely checked the epigenetic clocks of participants as an afterthought before discovering that four different measures of participants revealed a significant reversal of their epigenetic clocks through the process.
According to Horvath, six participants have provided blood samples for the six months following the trial, with the effect remaining stable.
“This told me that the biological effect of the treatment was robust.
Because we could follow the changes within each individual, and because the effect was so very strong in each of them, I am optimistic.”
Future tests will include a more diverse participant base in terms of age, ethnicity and gender, while the three drugs will each be tested independently in order to more accurately gauge their specific effects on the subjects.