Finding Elixirs Of Youth


These statues arent the only mystery that Easter Island holds.

Ever since reading Thor Heyerdahls Kon Tiki many years ago I, probably like many others, somehow convinced myself that Easter Island must surely hold some mystical secret. All these years later it would seem that Easter Island may well yet have a big secret stored in its earth. Recently scientists from the University of Texas have been conducting experiments with a naturally occurring substance in the soil on Easter Island, Rapamycin, which could yet prove to be a boost against the ageing process, if not quite the elixir of youth.

Findings published in Nature.

This old man looks 38% older than he probably is!

This old man looks 38% older than he probably is!

The studys findings were recently published in Nature after mice administered with rapamycin had their average lives extended by as much as 38%, from their human equivalent age of 60 years. Whilst the scientists are some years away from being able to pronounce rapamycin as an anti-ageing drug for humans; it is showing promise as being something that could yet become useful in the anti-ageing process. The reason for this is that mice have a sufficiently similar DNA to humans to warrant them being used in a variety of clinical trials. So it isnt such a large leap to see why the scientists are intent on following up the properties of rapamycin slowing the ageing process, and extending the human lifespan, even if treatment is started during a persons advanced years.

Rapamycin not a new discovery.

As a drug rapamycin was first discovered on Easter Island in the 1970s and has several existing medical uses; namely with transplant patients to avoid rejection and in stents to keep coronary arteries open. With other studies also looking at how rapamycin might be used in the treatment of cancers, it really does already have a good pedigree in prolonging peoples lives in conjunction with other medical procedures.

Limits to human longevity.

This image shows the likey changes in appearance as we get older.

Whilst in most western cultures the idea of living three score years and ten can now be extended on average by at least 10 years, there is still a natural age beyond which very few humans reach 120 years. The reason for this is that at, or around that age, the bodys ability to naturally repair itself simply stops working. The approximate lifespan these days of around the 80 years mark is simply due to improved nutrition, healthcare and living conditions. However, for most people, presuming that they have avoided any serious illnesses in their lives, it is around the age of 80 that there natural ability to repair themselves will cease to function. So we all have programmed into our DNA a rate at which we will age and at which our natural defenses will grind to a halt. However, that doesnt mean to necessarily say that our quality of life will also decline. People currently living into their nineties generally spend no more time hospitalized than people who die in their seventies and only twice as much time in hospital as those who die in their forties.

Your DNA and your life expectancy.

Dont get yourself too worried - your body doesnt have to start cracking up just because youre getting older.

Its not quite that we have in-built best before dates, but the rate at which we age is determined by our body tissues in-built repair processes. Your DNA carries the program for your life, including the information determining how well your body can self-repair. Unfortunately, DNA is very sensitive to attacks on your body tissue and cells; the more attacks it has to fend off the more challenged our bodies become to self-repairing. We can, of course, help ourselves to some extent in this, by not smoking tobacco, over indulging in food, drinking excessively, staying out in strong sunshine too long etc. Whilst if youre really determined you can treat your body like the proverbial temple, there is one natural process that will still present an enormous challenge to your self-repair mechanisms oxygen! Obviously an essential element to our bodies as once breathed in we assimilate our food with it to produce energy, it also has a downside. The same as it oxidizes and rusts away iron or yellows newsprint it will also eat away at your body cells, making it increasingly difficult for them to repair themselves and for your DNA to make new cells. Hence the need for anti-oxidants to mop up free radicals.

Why does DNA stop making new cells?

Chromosomes containing DNA splitting and reforming to renew cells.

Chromosomes containing DNA splitting and reforming to renew cells.

The process of cell renewal involves a special strand in the chromosomes known as telomeres. These protect the ends of the DNA when the chromosomes divide during cell replication, unfortunately with each replication the telomeres diminish in strength and size until, after about 100 renewals the telomeres are in effect spent. The net result of this is that the cell itself dies off. If enough telomeres are spent then your life expectancy has been reached. Or, if you prefer, youre only as old as your telomeres!

Increased life expectancy by repairing telomeres.

Still very much in the research phase, the present fact that adult cells cannot repair telomeres might yet be overcome. Scientists have isolated an enzyme, telomerase, which can act as a repair enzyme to telomeres. Interestingly, the enzyme is known to exist naturally in both male sperm and female ova. The exciting part of this research is that American laboratories have inserted the genes that produce telomerase into cells of human adult skin and found that two years later the telomeres were not showing any signs of diminishing.

Natural supplement or genetic engineering.

Until an elixir of youth is available - eat healthily and keep fit.

Exactly when either rapamycin or genetically modified telomeres might be released is rather difficult to say. However, the fact that both are naturally occurring is encouraging as no artificial chemicals are needed in the laboratory tests. The use of rapamycin may yet turn out to be more involved with extending the lifespan of humans by increasing their overall health, combating things such as infections, rather than actually halting the ageing process. However, the prospect of genetically engineered telomeres actually stopping the ageing process is truly the stuff of science fiction.

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