Guest post: A practical update on the search for immortality
This is the second in the series of four winners from the 2012 guest post blog contest.
by Ayush Ray
What do these four have in common?
It was rumored that the North Korean dictator would inject himself with virgin blood to stay young, Pope Innocent VIII on his deathbed was transfused blood of three young boys, and of course we know about the blood drinking habits of Dracula. Fictional or not, Dr. Saul Villeda of Stanford seems to show that these guys were on to something. Can young blood really be the key to the mystery of immortality?
Villeda’s research team shows that it’s partially true… for mice, at least. In the experiments conducted by Villeda and his team, old mice were given transfusions of blood from young mice. The hippocampus of the old mice given young blood showed changes in the expression of 200-300 genes involving synaptic plasticity (the ability of our brain to develop connections between neurons). Also, young blood boosted the strength of neuronal connections where development had previously been stagnant. Essentially, cognitive function of old mice given young blood improved, as shown by conducting a standard memory test.
Does Villeda’s quote scare you? Well don’t get your knickers in a knot. It’s unlikely you’re going to have your ol’ grandpa asking for your blood to stay young. Tony Wyss-Coray, also at Stanford hopes to identify these substances present in young blood that are not present in old geezer blood. What exactly are those substances, and how can this research be applied to humans? Research conducted on telomeres in Harvard in 2010 might give us some clues.
Telomeres are essentially ‘caps’ on chromosomes, the natural shortening of which are thought to cause the negative physical consequences of aging. The Harvard team injected an engineered telomerase (enzymes which stop telomeres from shortening) into genetically modified mice and noticed improvement in many age related complexities including cognitive functions. So the magical substance we’re looking for possibly has something to do with maintaining the telomere sizes in cells.
So what’s the catch? Cancer. It turns out that rejuvenation of dormant telomerase in humans causes a much greater risk of cancer. So, replicating the kind of research at Stanford or Harvard on humans poses two main challenges:
- Scientific challenge: We have to recognize the fact that rats are not miniature humans and simply because cancer did not develop after drug injection in the Harvard rats doesn’t mean that humans will not develop cancer either. Also, the price humans pay for greater complexity in physiological functions is a greater challenge is modeling a suitable substance for humans.
- Ethical challenge: Let’s assume that this wonder substance has been made. How does one even begin the appeal to review boards to approve testing on humans with such unknown health effects, especially cancer?
Resolving these issues will be a big milestone in our search for immortality. These are the initial speed bump we must over come in order to provide age-related therapies to millions who suffer from cognitive decline and perhaps even other physical degeneration caused by old age. Though it may be too late for the oldest generations among us, for those who are young, we may be on the way to thwarting old age (without having to siphon off the blood of children).
Filed under: biology, medical ethics | 3 Comments
Tags: aging, immortality, medicine, old age, telomeres, villeda