Is This The Elixir Of Youth? Researchers Find Way To Reverse Ageing

The University of NSW’s Professor David Sinclair. Photo: Britta Campion

Medical researchers at UNSW think they’ve found a way to reverse ageing, which may lead to new treatments for cancer, type 2 diabetes, muscle wasting and inflammatory diseases.

In good news for the slothful, it mimics the traditional methods used to postpone ageing – diet and exercise.

The team of researchers at UNSW, in collaboration with geneticists at Harvard Medical School, have discovered a cause of ageing in mice, and a compound to treat it, and now hope to start human trials next year.

The study, published today in the journal Cell, relates to mitochondria, a cells’ “battery pack”, which give it energy to implement key biological functions.

The work, led by Professor David Sinclair, found a series of molecular events enable communication inside cells between mitochondria and the nucleus. As communication breaks down, ageing accelerates.

“The ageing process we discovered is like a married couple – when they are young, they communicate well, but over time, living in close quarters for many years, communication breaks down,” said UNSW Professor Sinclair, who is based at Harvard.

“And just like a couple, restoring communication solved the problem.”

Part of the aging process is a decline in the chemical NAD, the fuel for the communication process.

Until now, the only way to slow that drop was diet and intense exercise, but researchers used a compound that cells transform into NAD to repair the broken network and restore communication and mitochondrial function.

After a week of treatment, older animals had similar physiology to younger ones in key measures.

While Prof. Sinclair’s group in Boston worked on muscles in tissue culture, the UNSW team worked on animal models to prove it could have the same results.

“It was shocking how quickly it happened,” says co-author Dr Nigel Turner, from UNSW’s Dept of Pharmacology. “If the compound is administered early enough in the aging process, in just a week, the muscles of the older mice were indistinguishable from the younger animals.”

The mice, which were two-years-old, also performed well on insulin resistance and inflammation – both of which are correlated with ageing. They were compared with six-month-old animals.

“It was a very pronounced effect,” Dr Turner said. “It’s something like a 60-year-old being similar to a 20-year-old on some measures.”

The younger mice given the same compound were “supercharged above normal level” on certain measures, according to Dr Turner. “So it is possible this would have benefits in healthy, young humans.”

A key finding involves HIF-1, an intrusive molecule that foils communication, and also has a role in cancer. It activates in many cancers and the researchers found it also switches on during ageing.

“Nobody has linked cancer and ageing like this before,” Prof. Sinclair said. It may explain why age increases cancer risk.

Prof. Sinclair recently co-founded Metrobiotech, a company that will further test the compound as researchers looking at its longer-term effects.

They are exploring whether it can be used to safely treat rare mitochondrial diseases and other conditions, such as type 1 and type 2 diabetes, as well as for longevity and good health.

Professor Sinclair said the conclusion is that ageing may be reversible if caught early.