Reversing Aging Process: How Are Scientists Turning Old Hearts Younger?

By iScienceTimes Staff on May 10, 2013 10:50 AM EDT

lab mouse 2
Researchers have found a way to reverse the aging process in mice, and they're hopeful it will work in humans too. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Harvard researchers have found a way to reverse the aging process using a macabre 18th century technique.

In the study, which is being hailed a medical breakthrough, researchers injected old mice with the blood of a younger mouse, which rejuvenated the aged heart tissue of the old mice within 30 days. While the study was confined to mice, researchers are hopeful that GDF-11, a protein they pinpointed in the study, could reverse heart failure in humans.

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"We've developed this potentially broadly-acting rejuvenative protein and we are excited to understand its potential in humans," said study author Amy Wagers, of Harvard University.

Since aging largely occurs uniformly in human bodies, Wagers and her colleagues thought that there must be one factor that contributes to the organs and tissues of the body knowing how to function throughout a person's life.

"We looked in the blood stream, because the blood carries things to all parts of the body; that would be a logical place for that substance to be traveling," Wagers said.

So the researchers turned to a bizarre medical method which seems more Victor Frankenstein (or Elizabeth Bathory) than 21st century Harvard. The method, heterochronic parabiosis, involves connecting the circulatory systems of an old mouse and a young mouse, so that the blood flows through both mice (see chart here). The somewhat creepy medical technique has been around since the 18th century, when scientists used parabiosis to study nutrient exchanges between animals.

"This is probably the first handle we have on what makes the heart young and what makes it old," said Deepak Srivastava, a cardiologist who did not participate in the study.

Last year, Saul Villeda led a similar Stanford University study, in which he connected the circulatory systems of mice to test learning and memory levels. He too found that the aging process was clearly slowed down by the blood exchange, and like the Harvard professors was hopeful that it would have practical human applications.

"Do I think that giving young blood could have an effect on a human? I'm thinking more and more that it might," said Villeda. "I did not, for sure, three years ago."

The Harvard study was published in the journal Cell.

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