The Benjamin Button Mouse

Researchers at Harvard University recently released their results from an experiment testing an enzyme on mice to effectively arrest aging. What they discovered was profound.

First a bit of biology 101. The nucleus is sort of like the administrative center of the cell. It is protected by a porous double plasma membrane. Within the nucleus we find the chromosomes which contain our DNA. The genes within the DNA hold the recipe for everything that makes us. The ends of the chromosomes are protected by end caps known as telomeres, these caps function sort of like the plastic tips on your shoe laces. Every time a cell divides the telomeres get shorter, in effect the cell gets older and after several divisions (Hayflick Limit) the cell dies before the telomeres completely run out. This prevents damage to the genes and the possibility of passing on mutated information.

 Brad Pitt as Benjamin Button 

In 1984 an enzyme that restores telomere length was discovered since named telomerase. 
Telomerase is the reason cancer cells are immortalized meaning they don’t have a Hayflick limit
and thus they continue to pass on mutated information through cell division.

Back to Harvard. The test subjects (in this case mice) were altered so as to produce
low levels of telomerase, this lead to premature aging similar to an 80 year old human, memory problems, graying, balding, and health issues. Once the telomerase was turned back on the signs of aging didn’t only stop, they actually reversed with hair growing back, increased brain function, increased vigor and vastly improved organ function.

As exciting as this sounds it’s not yet the fountain of youth though. First off these mice were  designed to have low telomerase activity giving them false age related symptoms so the effect  made not work on mice that were actually old. Second they actually didn’t live any longer than  normal. Third, well, they’re mice. No one knows if the effect would work on humans yet. The jury is still out on whether artificially increasing telomere length is safe or if can turn back the clock.

While science sorts out what may turn out to be one of the greatest discoveries about the human genome there are a few things we can currently do.

Recent studies show that exercising 3 hours a week adds the equivalent of 9 years onto telomere length. Also, vitamin D and Fish oil have both independently been shown to increase telomere length, adding to a myriad of reasons to supplement with both.  Even if living longer isn’t the goal, living more healthfully is and should be.