In recent times there’s been an explosion of hypotheses and technologies that might make the elusive promise of eternal youthfulness an achievable reality. Scientists are currently falling over each other in their enthusiastic zeal to explain how ageing can be aborted and even reversed. There’s no shortage of strategies that promise to assuage our collective desire to remain forever young. Stem cell rejuvenation, injecting young blood into the aged, persistently eating less, intermittent fasting, drugs such as rapamycin which promote the elimination of cellular garbage and metformin, a pharmaceutical used to treat diabetes but which can also ramp up stem cell production, have all been posited as longevity promoters. These drugs are not without their side effects. Rapamycin can weaken the immune system while metformin can deplete your body of energy-providing B cell vitamins. Just how plausible, accessible and safe are all these approaches, or are we being sold unrealistic hype by avaricious hucksters keener on the dollar than our wellbeing?
Stem cell restoration
Stem cell technology has been around for a while, and there’s an abundance of research showing that these primordial cells that are primed to build tissues and organs anew can be utilised to replace ailing and decrepit body parts that are no longer serving us. These cells are located in your fat from whence they can be harvested and purified and then injected back into your body to work their rejuvenating magic. The problem is that these stem cells aren’t exactly hardy and robust. They deteriorate rather easily, acquiring the diminished and ageing features of the very cells they are designed to replace. No problem: ingenious scientists have found a way to overcome this obstacle.
What they did was pair resveratrol, found in the skin of red grapes, an antioxidant already embraced by the anti-ageing community as a potential revitalising blockbuster, with a drug called 5‐azacytidine, a substance with matching preservation potential. The aim was to fashion a uniquely potent stem cell booster that would guarantee stem cell survival and ongoing replication in the harsh and unforgiving terrain of the ageing body. Metformin, the diabetic drug, has been similarly repurposed to achieve such an outcome. Eating less has also been found to seed stem cells, at least in older mice.
Aside from devising a methodology to foster stem cell immortality, scientists have also had to focus on another spectre that threatens the durability of stem cells and that is the presence of senescent cells. As the name implies, these are cells that have undergone age-related degeneration and obsolescence and their dying embers emit nefarious chemicals which destroy stem cells.
They can also mutate into cancer cells, which makes them doubly undesirable. Once again scientists have orchestrated a suis generis combination of actors harnessing the power of the vitamin-like substance quercetin and dasatinib, a drug commonly used in leukaemia chemotherapy, to eradicate senescent cells. This twosome has already been used to treat fibrotic lung disease and diabetes-associated kidney dysfunction, albeit in small-scale pilot studies. The authors of this discovery have cautioned that we have a long way to go yet before research informs us that these substances are ready for prime time.
That’s the problem with stem cells. They might work in the test tube, on animals and in limited studies on humans, but we don’t yet have the evidence that they might de-age us.
Mitochondria are the batteries that energise your cells, and like all batteries they eventually become disabled and dysfunctional. The race has always been on to come up with that omnipotent antioxidant that would coat your mitochondria in a protective shield, enabling them to withstand the mounting chemical salvos that ultimately cremate this indispensable energy generator.
The closest we’ve come to unveiling the mitochondrial holy grail is a nutrient called coenzyme Q10. This is an antioxidant that operates at the epicentre of energy production within this organelle. It is obtained from food mostly of animal origin such as oily fish including salmon and tuna, organ meats like liver, as well as nuts and whole grains, but the vast majority of the coenzyme Q10 we need is manufactured in the body. This function declines substantially as we get older, which is why taking supplements might be helpful. The problem is it’s not very well absorbed, which has led to the formulation of refined iterations like ubiquinol, idebenone and MitoQ, designed to maximise its accessibility to the mitochondria. Human studies showing that supplementing with these actually slows ageing have yet to be executed.
Telomeres are protective caps at the end of chromosomes where your genes are housed, and like aglets, the small bits of metal at the end of shoelaces, they preserve their integrity, allowing the ongoing replication of your cells. With ageing they become frayed and shortened, making replication more difficult and growing older imminent. Restoring telomeres has similarly been a steadfast preoccupation of the anti-ageing community. Vitamin B12, vitamin C, the drug metformin, caloric restriction and a formulation known as TA-65, that contains the herb astragalus and other natural ingredients, have all been espoused as telomere preservers.
Centenarians enjoy longevity due to a combination of fortitude, stoicism and fortunate genetics, not by embracing the above technologies. Whether we can use these tools to achieve similar Sisyphean achievements has yet to be determined.
Article Featured in WellBeing #203