What if there was a way to not only slow down the aging process but turn back our biological clock? A recent study led by scientist Steve Horvath, Ph.D., Sc.D., at the University of California in Los Angeles showed promise in actually being able to reverse biological age.
While this might sound like the beginning of a good sci-fi film, the findings are very real and came as a surprise even to the researchers who conducted the study. “I’d expected to see slowing down of the clock, but not a reversal,” said Dr. Horvath, the Professor in Human Genetics and Biostatistics who lead this study, “That felt kind of futuristic.”
How Was This Study Conducted?
The original intention of this drug trial, which was funded by Intervene Immune, a biomedical firm based out of Los Angeles, CA was not to reverse biological age, but rather focused on preserving and improving the function of the thymus gland. The thymus gland, which plays a vital role in the function of the human body’s immune system, naturally deteriorates as we age and biogerontologist Gregory Fahy, Ph.D., was looking for a way to preserve the function of this vital gland.
Dr. Fahy conducted a small clinical study that followed nine healthy volunteers (all caucasian males between the ages of 51 – 65) over the course of one year. A few times a week, each volunteer self-administered a cocktail of two common diabetes medications (dehydroepiandrosterone and metformin) which were combined with a growth hormone. Blood samples were then taken at regular intervals to monitor the volunteer’s progress and thymic gland function throughout the year-long study.
The growth hormone given to the volunteers had shown promise as a means of recovering damaged thymic tissue in previous studies conducted in both animals and humans, as well as a solo study Dr. Fahy had performed on himself in the early 2000s. Dr. Fahy made the decision to mix the growth hormone with the diabetes medications because one of the known side effects of the growth hormone is that it can promote the development of diabetes. The diabetes medications were intended as a means of counteracting this side effect.
Upon studying the blood samples of the nine volunteers, Dr. Fahy found evidence of not only thymic tissue recovery but markers indicating that the volunteer’s kidney function had improved. Based on these findings, Dr. Fahy reached out to Dr. Horvath at UCLA, who is highly regarded for his efforts in developing precise methods for testing a person’s biological age. Dr. Fahy asked Dr. Horvath to analyze the preserved blood samples taken from the nine volunteers to see if and how the study had impacted the volunteers’ biological age.
How Do Scientists Determine a Person’s Biological Age?
Scientists use a measurement called the epigenetic clock to determine a person’s age accurately. This form of testing measures methylation levels at 353 locations within a person’s DNA. In a 2018 interview, Dr. Horvath compared this means of measuring molecular changes to measuring the amount of rust on a car. As a car ages, more rust appears, and as we humans age, the levels of methylation in our DNA increase.
What Were the Findings of This Study?
The results of Dr. Horvath’s study, which were first published in Aging Cell on September 5th, 2019, showed that the volunteers’ immune systems had indeed been rejuvenated and that their epigenetic age had actually reversed by an average of two and a half years. Astoundingly, each of the volunteers’ biological ages had decreased by the end of the drug trial, resulting in an increase in their overall life expectancy. In short, this study showed that it may, in fact, be possible to reverse biological age.
When Will This Treatment Become Available?
While these preliminary findings will surely impact the scientific community in a profound way, this research is still in the early stages, and much more testing is required. Since this clinical trial, which showed it may be possible to reverse biological age, did not include a control group, there is no way to rule out the possibility of a placebo effect definitively. Much larger volunteer groups will be needed to develop a deeper understanding of this drug combination’s effects.
Cell biologist Wolfgang Wagner, MD, Ph.D., who is a Professor of Stem Biology and Cellular Engineering at Aachen University in Germany explained, “It may be that there is an effect, but the results are not rock solid because the study is very small and not well controlled.”
Intervene Immune has plans to execute larger trials, including a wider sample size comprised of men and women of varying ages and ethnicities. In the meantime, this study is changing the way scientists think about aging, and we’ll certainly be keeping a close eye on this research as more studies are published.
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