A new paper in the journal Cell this month prompted a flurry of interest from people wanting to turn back the clock and erase the signs of ageing. Researchers at Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands discovered that regular doses of a small molecule helps the body to get rid of worn-out and faulty cells, boosting the health and appearance of elderly mice.
The chemical - a tiny protein known as a peptide - works by blocking the activity of a protein called FOXO4. This usually interacts with a protein called p53 - the so-called ‘Guardian of the Genome’ - to keep elderly cells in a state known as senescence, where they stay alive but slow down and age. But if FOXO4 is blocked, then p53 kicks into action and causes these senescent cells to die.
Because FOXO4 is only active in senescent cells, the treatment is highly specific and has very few side effects, even if animals were given the chemical for more than ten months. But even though it seems to be safe in the long term (at least in lab mice), the benefits were quick to arrive. The scientists saw fur growing back in balding, ageing mice after just 10 days of treatment, with fitness benefits showing up after three weeks and improved kidney function after a month.
While the work has only been done in naturally-aged mice and also animals that have been genetically engineered to age rapidly, the researchers are planning initial human safety studies in people with brain tumours that show high levels of FOXO4. So it’s still likely to be some time before an anti-ageing drug becomes a reality.