Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A Molecular Fountain of Youth, Now Proven To Repair Brain and Muscle Tissue


The eternal life of the future won’t have much to do with computers or “downloadable consciousness.” That’s just a clever set of exaggerations and distortions designed to sell books, and Google. The reality of artificial life extension will come from biotechnology, specifically stem cells, the cells in the body that haven’t yet become specialized and, thus, can become any number of different things with different physiological functions, like fighting disease—or aging. A study out today in an early edition of the journal Science essentially breaks this future wide open, describing a protein molecule that reverses aging effects at the genetic level in the hearts, brains, and skeletal muscles of mice. The effect is dramatic and, in a way, rather simple.

First, we need to step back one year to the release of a paper from a portion of same research team, based at Harvard University. That paper described experiments done on aging mice with the protein GDF11. GDF11 is what’s known as a growth factor, a molecule that binds to receptors on stem cells and tells them what kind of differentiated cell they’re supposed to become. It had been determined via a prior screening process that GDF11 levels decline in elderly mice, making it a prime target for anti-aging stem cell research. It didn’t hurt that the protein had already been implicated in a number of different healing and developmental processes.  

The Harvard team tried two approaches to boosting levels of GDF11 in old mice. One of these involved surgically combining the circulatory systems of an old mouse and a very young mouse, such that the old mouse was receiving young blood. The second (and less creepy) method involved simple injections of the growth factor. The result of both methods was the same: young hearts in old mice. Specifically, the heart muscle thickening and stiffening known as hypertrophy that’s often seen in aging heart tissue was reversed. If replicated in humans, the effect would be akin to curing diastolic heart failure, a common cause of death in the elderly.

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