Text Size
28 Apr 2023

Turning the tap on the fountain of youth

Ageing Well

A 13-year study looks into what drives ageing and the implications of remaining forever young…relatively speaking.

For thousands of years people have sought the powers of special fountains to help stem the ageing process. But the name linked most closely to the search for a Fountain of Youth is 16th-century Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon, who allegedly thought it would be found in Florida in the United States. Try as he might to find such a powerful drop soon his will, and resources, dried up.

Fast forward to the present day and it seems as if a particular research project has opened the flow in answering what drives ageing. Reported in the global Time magazine and medical journal Cell in 2023, the findings have been made public in a study published by lead researcher Dr David Sinclair, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School in the United States. Put in lay terms the study describes a ground breaking discovery of an ‘ageing clock’ that can speed up, or reverse, the ageing of cells.

As reported in the article, scientists studying ageing have debated what drives the process of cells getting older. Most of the work to date has honed in on mutations in DNA. A process that can, over time, play havoc with a cell’s normal functioning and trigger the process of what is called ‘cell death’. The validity of this theory began to diminish as older people’s cells are not necessarily riddled with mutations. Moreover, animals or people harbouring a higher burden of mutated cells don’t seem to necessarily age prematurely.

Silent cells
Based on this, Dr Sinclair and his team focused on another part of the genome, called the epigenome. He postulated that as all cells have the same DNA blueprint, the epigenome is what makes skin cells turn into skin cells and brain cells into brain cells. It does this by providing different instructions to different cells for which genes to turn on, and which to keep ‘silent’.

In the Cell paper Information Theory of Ageing, Dr Sinclair and his team report that not only can they age mice on an accelerated timeline, but they can also reverse the effects of that ageing and restore some of the biological signs of youthfulness to the mice. That reversibility, says the article, establishes that the main drivers of ageing aren’t mutations to the DNA, but miscues in the genetic instructions that go off the rails.

“Underlying ageing is information that is lost in cells, not just the accumulation of damage,” he says. “That’s a paradigm shift in how to think about ageing. If the cause of ageing was because a cell became full of mutations, then age reversal would not be possible. But by showing that we can reverse the ageing process, that shows that the system is intact, that there is a backup copy and the software needs to be rebooted.”

In the mice, he and his team developed a way to reboot cells essentially erasing the corrupted signals that put the cells on the path toward ageing. They mimicked the effects of ageing on the epigenome by introducing breaks in the DNA of young mice.

Once “aged” in this way, within a matter of weeks Dr Sinclair saw that the mice began to show signs of older age—including grey fur, lower body weight despite unaltered diet, reduced activity, and increased frailty.

There are parallels with the application of stem cell research but Dr Sinclair says there are differences in the approach and the results achieved.

Turning back the clock
“We’re not making stem cells, but turning back the clock so they can regain their identity,” says Sinclair. “I’ve been really surprised by how universally it works. We haven’t found a cell type yet that we can’t age forward and backward.”

“We think of the processes behind ageing, and diseases related to Ageing, as irreversible,” says Sinclair. “In the case of the eye, there is the misconception that you need to regrow new nerves. But in some cases the existing cells are just not functioning, so if you reboot them, they are fine. It’s a new way to think about medicine.”

As reported in the Time article, that could mean that a host of diseases—including chronic conditions such as heart disease and even neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s—could be treated in large part by reversing the ageing process that leads to them. Even before that happens, the process could be an important new tool for researchers studying these diseases.

“We don’t understand how rejuvenation really works, but we know it works,” Sinclair says. “We can use it to rejuvenate parts of the body and hopefully make medicines that will be revolutionary. Now, when I see an older person, I don’t look at them as old, I just look at them as someone whose system needs to be rebooted. It’s no longer a question of if rejuvenation is possible, but a question of when.”

Like all scientific discoveries ‘just because we can’ does not mean ‘we should’. Medical ethics to name just one branch of the science of medicine will have a critical role in the application, scope, etc of epigenomics for use with humans.

Feedback welcomed

We'd like to hear your thoughts on this topic

Click here to submit your feedback

Date Published: April 2023

To be reviewed: April 2026