Some lucky old mice at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota have been given the gift of youth. Researchers reversed their age-related wrinkles, muscle wasting and cataracts, and it could lead to a fountain of youth for humans too.
It sounds too wonderful to be true, but it's not science fiction. The researchers, who published their work today in Nature, made the mice youthful by manipulating their "senescent cells", which have retired and stopped dividing. That helps prevent tumours from forming, but they were also suspected of contributing to the ugly side of ageing.
To find out whether removing the cells might keep us pretty and healthy as we grow old, the researchers genetically engineered mice to give them the ability to flush away all their senescent cells. And what do you know? Without them, the critters lost their age-related wrinkles (actually loss of skin fat that causes wrinkles, mice don't really get them), cataracts and muscle wasting.
The immune system clears out some of our senescent cells automatically, but not all of them, and they accumulate over time. Up to 10 per cent of all cells in really old people are senescent.
It sounds so simple: all we have to do is get rid of our senescent cells for forever youth! But it's not that easy, of course. The scientists suggest developing a drug that could clear the cells, or an immune booster to make the natural process more efficient. But either would take years to develop.
One other caveat: the youthful mice didn't live longer than normal. So if a treatment for humans ever does come to fruition you might not live forever, but at least you'll look marvelous!