New York, Jul 3 : An ‘elixir of life' could soon be reality, scientists claim. In remarkable experiments, researchers took cells from children who were old before their time and made them healthy again.
The cells treated with the ‘forever young' drug – called rapamycin – also lived longer than normal.
The U.S. researchers, who include Francis Collins, one of the world's most eminent scientists, hope the finding will lead to new ways of treating Hutchinson-Gilford Progeria Syndrome, a rare genetic condition in which babies rapidly grow old and frail, before dying of ‘old age' at around 12.
Hayley Okines, from Bexhill, east Sussex, is known for spreading awareness of progeria. In January she was 13, an age she was not expected to reach.
Diagnosed in 1999, her condition causes her to age eight times faster than the average person.
Some people have speculated that author F Scott Fitzgerald based his story The Curious Case of Benjamin Button on HGPS sufferers. In the short story, the lead character ages in reverse.
Some similarities between HGPS and the normal ageing process mean that the breakthrough could also hold hope for the general population.
Previous research on rapamycin has hinted that it may have the power to extend human lifespan by more than a decade.
Rapamycin, which is already used to suppress the immune system in organ transplants, was created from a bacterium found in the soil on Easter Island – which lies more than 2,000 miles off Chile and is one of the most remote and mysterious places on the planet.
Dr Collins, director of the U.S. government's health research labs and one of the scientists who cracked the human genome, studied the effect of the drug on skin cells from three children with HGPS.
The disease causes levels of a mutant protein called progerin to build up inside every cell of the body, producing defects and rapidly ageing the cells.
Treating them with the drug flushed the poisonous protein out of the cells and reversed the defects, effectively making them healthy again. What is more, the cells lived longer, the journal Science Translational Medicine reports.
Researchers from the prestigious Harvard Medical School collaborated on the study and now hope to try out the drug, or something similar, on children with HGPS.
But with progerin, albeit in much smaller amounts, also partially to blame for the normal ageing process, the implications could be far wider.
Dimitri Krainc, one of the study's co-authors, said: ‘It is known that during ageing, our cells accumulate by-products of normal cell function.
‘Our body's ability to remove this debris declines with ageing and it is thought that even a small activation of this ‘debris removal' system would extend the health and life-span of our cells and organs.
He added: ‘It should be emphasized that we are not recommending rapamycin as an anti-ageing medicine at this point. Safer versions of rapamycin would have to be developed for such purpose.'
Possibilities include new cancer drugs that work in a similar way to rapamycin but with fewer side-effects.