Reversing the Aging Process

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Reversing the Aging Process

In a world with a rapidly aging population, nothing could be more exciting than research aimed at slowing, and even reversing, the aging process in humans.  The big questions are:  "Is such a therapy possible?" and, "If so, when will it be commercially available?"

A recent study involving mice at Harvard University seems to indicate that the answer to the first question is "probably."1 This study focused on the role that the enzyme telomerase plays in the repair of damaged tissue. 

There are many factors that cause aging, but one particularly interesting one is called "telomere shortening."  Telomeres are sections of DNA that reside at the ends of all chromosomes. 

Three scientists were awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for determining the structure of telomeres and discovering how they protect chromosomes from degrading.  One of the Nobel Prize winners, Elizabeth Blackburn of the University of California at San Francisco, has compared telomeres to the plastic tips at the ends of shoelaces, which prevent the laces from unraveling.

Unfortunately, each time a cell divides, its telomeres become slightly shorter.  Over time, they become so short that the cell stops dividing.  That leads to aging on the cellular level, which, in turn, eventually leads to organ failure.

This telomere shortening mechanism limits cells to a fixed number of divisions and can be regarded as a "biological clock." 

Recent research at the Albert Einstein Institute for Aging Research confirms that humans who achieve exceptional longevity are better able to maintain the length of their telomeres.2  The research also shows that people with long lifespans owe their longevity, at least in part, to advantageous variants of genes involved in telomere maintenance.

So, does this mean if you're not born with this ability to maintain your telomeres you're out of luck?  Well, not necessarily. 

According to research reported in Circulation,3 the journal of the American Heart Association, intensive exercise helps prevent shortening of telomeres.  The   researchers discovered that "intensive, long-term exercise training over several decades" activates telomerase, an enzyme that reduces telomere shortening in human leukocytes. 

Ultimately, the researchers believe, it may be possible to develop drugs that mimic the telomerase that centenarians have been blessed with.  And this brings us back to the new Harvard study, which was just published in the journal Nature.4 

To conduct the study, the researchers first bred genetically manipulated mice that lacked telomerase...

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