Eternal Youth Is Just Around The Corner. Not.

Fount of Youth?According to certain tabloid newspapers this morning (4 January 2012), the age-old dream of eternal youth is almost upon us, via a modern sciency method of stopping the aging process by means of stem cells.

A story by the METRO’s Fred Attewill was headlined “Stem cell jabs hold secret of eternal youth” in the print version. The online version tells us that

“Eternal youth could be just around the corner as new research on laboratory mice showed the animals lived three times longer than normal after being given stem cell injections. And humans could be next to benefit from this ‘shot of youthful vigour’ – the holy grail of modern medicine.”

The Daily Mail claimed that “Stem cells could hold key to ‘stopping ageing’ … after trial triples mouse lifespan”

The Daily Express story was headlined “NEW JAB IS ‘ONE STEP CLOSER’ TO UNLOCKING KEY TO ETERNAL YOUTH” and opened with “SCIENTISTS have unlocked the secret of how people could live for three times longer.”

Anybody who skim reads by reading the headlines and opening paragraphs of a story cannot help but think that eternal youth could be theirs. Reading further, however, gives a somewhat different story. For example, from the METRO:

The rodents, engineered with the premature ageing condition progeria, developed new muscles and blood vessels in their brains after being given shots of stem cells from their younger, healthier counterparts.

Injecting the cells into 17-day-old mice saw an increase in their lifespans from an average of 21 to 28 days to more than 66 days. It is thought the healthy stem cells helped correct abnormalities in the cells of the mice.

At this point it seemed to me that it was a bit of an over-interpretation to claim that this procedure would prolong the lives of normal mice, let alone humans. The METRO article did not give a link to the research and my google-fu was too weak to find it. However, it did find me the email address of researcher Dr. Laura Niedernhofer so I thought I would ask her. Stem cell research is more than a little outside my comfort zone anyway:

I am a UK based science blogger (http://jaycueaitch.wordpress.com) and am intrigued by the reporting of your research into the slowing of aging in lab mice by giving them stem cell injections in the UK press

http://www.metro.co.uk/news/886330-stem-cell-injections-the-secret-to-eternal-youth

The article claims that “eternal youth” for humans “is just around the corner” on the basis of your research but that seems a bit of a stretch to me as the article then states that the mice concerned had been engineered with progeria and the injections tripled the life expectancy of these specimens.

1. If this procedure were tried in normal mice, would you expect a similarly dramatic increase in life expectancy? Are there any plans to try this?

2. How far away are you from human trials of this procedure?

3. Is your research available online? I could not see it on the University’s website.

Thank you for your time.

Yours sincerely

John Hawcock

Of the “eternal youth” claim she said:

“That is a stretch.

The mice we tested were engineered to have progeria. We started with progeroid mice because they age rapidly. Also the mice accurately mimic human aging, developing many of the common aging-related chronic disease humans experience such as osteoporosis, muscle wasting, neurodegeneration and spine degeneration.

Much of the press is focused on the finding that in a severe model of progeria, stem cells extended lifespan. But an equally exciting finding was that in a less severe model of progeria (with a lifespan of 7 months), stem cell therapy delayed the onset of 75% of their aging-related symptoms (e.g., muscle wasting, low activity, hunched back due to osteoporosis).”

To point 1 she said:

“We would like to test normal mice in the near future. But this is a much more difficult experiment. It is hard to predict when to start treating mice and how often to treat them. Then we have to wait several years to see if our prediction was correct. But my expectation is that, like in progeroid mice, osteoporosis, loss of activity, muscle wasting and impaired gait would be improved.”

To point 2 she said:

“Clinical trials to evaluate therapies aimed at extending healthy aging in the elderly are tricky since “aging” is very individual. Therefore it is difficult to measure success. However, Cook® MyoSite is considering clinical trials to evaluate the use of muscle-derived stem-progenitor cells for autologous treatment of various disease end-points (e.g., urinary incontinence, cardiac disease, muscular dystrophy).”

And in answer to point 3 she supplied a link to the research paper.

It seems to me that the real story here is potential treatment for premature aging in humans, wasting diseases and some of the frailities of old age. This is actually very interesting but it has been lost in media fantasies of rejuvination and eternal youth.

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4 Responses to “Eternal Youth Is Just Around The Corner. Not.”

  1. Andysnat Says:

    A very good illustration of how the press behaves when it comes to reporting science, and how nice of Laura Niedernhofer to respond to you in the manner she did.

    Thank you very much Ms Niedernhofer.

  2. Andysnat Says:

    Damn, missed the Dr. honorific, sorry.

  3. Phyllis Falcone Says:

    Our two sons have progeria and I appreciated your blog. I agree that the media has spun this into a “fountain of youth” remedy; however, in this case I like the spin because it brings attention to this research. There are only about 50 kids worldwide with Progeria and only four with the type of progeriod syndrome from which my boys suffer. As a result it is difficult to spend money on something that would benefit from such a small population. But, when it is your kids and you don’t want them to die, you will do anything you can. It is true though that this research could ultimately prevent heart disease and improve the quality of life for the elderly population. Thanks

    http://www.nathanandbennett.org

  4. A Fifth Year of Steam « Letting Off Steam Says:

    [...] British Press has continued in its woeful ignorance of all things scientific. The year began with research into premature aging being presented by the press as eternal youth being just around the corner. Plainly the journalists concerned did no [...]

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