Since the dawn of history, humans have been searching for ways to reverse aging and we are finally making tremendous progress. Researchers from MIT and Harvard have reportedly discovered 6 chemicals that can reverse aging in human cells, not just slow or stop it.

What Causes of Aging Can Be Reversed?

hallmarks of aging pie chart
Image Courtesy of Cell Press

When we think of aging we think of wrinkles, sore joints, and white hair but it’s easy to forget that aging is happening at the cellular level. As it is understood today, one of the main hallmarks of aging (in eukaryotes like humans) is a loss of epigenetic information. Epigenetic changes are stable, reversible changes to DNA that do not include alterations to its sequence. They are caused by certain biological mechanisms as well as environmental and behavioral changes.

Unless you took biology in college and have a great memory you may not know that the sequence of amino acids is far from the only important information held in a strand of DNA. There are a few different processes that ensure that only the correct genes are active at the right times. One of the most important, called DNA methylation, is essential for properly functioning DNA.

DNA methylation is the process in which cells can deactivate certain genes and it is heavily correlated with aging. Over time, random errors in DNA methylation start to happen and are passed down to new cells. These epigenetic changes continue to increase, leading to the wrong genes being expressed and leaving the right genes unexpressed.

One or 2 of these errors in a few cells won’t hurt the organism but when enough of them stack up, they eventually become quite harmful, contributing to the side effects of aging we know all too well.

This epigenetic pathway is the aging mechanism that the scientists at Harvard and MIT have been working to reverse.

Do These Chemicals Actually Reverse Aging In Humans?

Until this paper from Harvard and MIT, it was thought impossible to reverse these epigenetic changes without causing cancer. Pretty much any time you mess with a genome at this scale, whether it’s directed at its sequence or epigenetics, there is a substantial risk of cancer. If a few of the wrong genes are methylated or demethylated incorrectly, it could lead to cancer quickly.

The team first worked out which markers of aging they would focus on. Then they used the most popular method of drug discovery, called high throughput screening. This process includes testing thousands and thousands (sometimes more, sometimes less) of chemicals to look for chemicals that cause these markers to improve.

They eventually discovered 6 chemical compounds that, when used in certain combinations, reversed aging in cells in a matter of a few days. These chemicals work by expressing genes called Yamanska factors, reverting the cells back into stem cells that can regain their youthful epigenetics through the normal pathways. This seems to be remarkably safe in animals but this study was limited to cell cultures.

Tests in mice and monkeys have been incredibly promising as well but more research needs to be done to ensure safety. Luckily, the team is already preparing for its first human trials studying the age-reversing chemicals. The fountain of youth may only be a few decades off but it’s important to remember that epigenetic changes are only 1 of the 9 most important hallmarks of aging. There are now a multitude of companies spending billions of dollars to try to reverse them, such as Brian Armstrong’s NewLimit, but there simply may not be an easy answer for many of them.

Are There Other Ways to Reverse Aging?

Fully reversing aging may require reversing most if not all of the 9 main hallmarks of the process. Another main pathway of aging is telomere shortening. Telomeres are extremely simple. They are just a string of extra nucleotides attached at each end of a DNA strand.

Telomeres don’t encode anything but they are still tremendously important. The process of cellular division, which requires the cell’s DNA to be copied and replicated, can result in the loss of a few nucleotides at the end of the strand. Telomeres are buffers that ensure that these replication errors don’t eat into coding DNA, affecting the cell’s function.

Some experts like to compare Telomeres with bomb fuses. Replication still leads to lost nucleotides and eventually, after a lifetime’s worth of replication errors, the fuse runs out.

Ever since this pathway was found to contribute to aging, scientists have been searching for a safe way to lengthen Telomeres. In 2010 it was discovered that the protein Telomerase, which is tasked with maintaining the Telomeres, can be expressed to reverse this process (in mice).

While this seems quite promising, much more research needs to be done there is already a massive problem with this concept. When you maintain your body’s telomeres much better, ensuring that they don’t get too short from replication, every cell is benefitted. Unfortunately, this includes cancer cells.

Telomerase is absolutely vital for cancer cells because they replicate so frequently, amplifying the problem of DNA damage from cellular division. If it didn’t have enough of the protein, its DNA would be shortened so quickly that it would likely die out. So if a treatment was made for reversing aging that expressed higher levels of Telomerase, it would make cancer cells much more viable, potentially leading to all kinds of cancer.

There may be other ways to ensure that telomeres are lengthened enough for normal rates of replication but not enough to sustain cancer but that is still a ways away if it’s even possible.

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