Life Wellbeing ’Holy Grail’: Two markers for ageing reversed in human study
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’Holy Grail’: Two markers for ageing reversed in human study

A small study saw an apparent reversal of two biological markers of ageing. Is a cure for ageing on the way? You should live so long. Photo: Getty
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Pop star Justin Bieber reportedly sleeps in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, to reverse the damage done by too much fast living – and to otherwise aid his recovery from a misspent youth.

This week, Israeli researchers claimed a world first by using a form of hyperbaric oxygen therapy – best known  as a treatment for decompression sickness – to reverse two key “biological hallmarks” of ageing, in a small study of pensioners.

The study, “part of a comprehensive research program targeting ageing as a reversible disease”, found that daily exposures to high concentrations of oxygen reversed telomere length shortening and accumulation of senescent cells.

This potentially means that real-life, age-related damage at cellular and molecular levels have been reversed. The researchers say they have achieved “the Holy Grail” by reversing telomere shortening.

Telomeres? Senescent cells? Please explain!

Telomeres are the caps at the end of each strand of DNA – the long double helix molecule that contains our unique genetic code.

These caps protect our chromosomes, and are often compared to the plastic tips at the end of shoelaces.

Telomeres are the caps at the end of our DNA strands. Over time, they get shorter with each round of cell division, and this leaves the DNA vulnerable. Photo: Getty

Just as shoelaces become frayed and fall apart when these caps are lost, the shortening of telomeres – which occurs with each round of cell division – allows strands of DNA to become damaged and cells to malfunction. From that point, we can become prone to serious illness.

Cell senescence: A new cell will divide dozens of times before running out of reproductive juice and then stopping – and becoming senescent.

In other words, senescent cells are the end point in cell division, and are generally regarded as malfunctioning or ‘zombie’ cells. Over time they accumulate as rubbish.

The experimental reversal of ageing occurred at a cellular level. There is no suggestion that the study participants reverted to their 20-year-old selves. Not yet anyway. Photo: Getty

It’s a little more complex than that. Senescent cells in an embryo are believed to mediate tissue development. They are also thought to promote tissue regeneration and wound repair in later life.

However, anti-ageing researchers “regard senescence as a driver of the physical decline characteristic of old age and a contributor to a range of age-related diseases”.

Animals studies have suggested that reducing accumulated senescence can reverse age-related decline.

Now, researchers from Tel Aviv University and Shamir Medical Centre have, reportedly for the first time, had similar success in humans.

How did the study work?

The trial included 35 healthy independent adults aged 64 and older who did not undergo any lifestyle, diet or medication adjustments.

Each patient received 60 daily hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) exposures over the course of 90 days.

Each session included breathing 100 per cent oxygen by mask at 2ATA (double normal sea-level atmospheric pressure) for 90 minutes with five-minute air breaks every 20 minutes.

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is best known as a decompression treatment for divers and astronauts. It’s also used for healing wounds in people with Type 2 diabetes. Photo: Getty

Whole blood samples were collected before treatment, at the 30th and 60th session, and one to two weeks following the last HBOT session, to assess peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PMBCs) telomere length and senescence.

The study found that “repeated daily HBOT sessions can increase PBMC telomere length by more than 20 per cent in an ageing population, with B cells having the most striking change.”

B cells are a type of white blood cell: They function in the adaptive immune system by secreting antibodies.

In addition, HBOT “decreased the number of senescent cells by 10 to 37 per cent, with T helper senescent cells being the most affected”.

T cells are also a type of white blood cell, but when senescent are known to cause immune abnormalities in chronic inflammation and persistent infection.

The Holy Grail of the biology of ageing

Shai Efrati is an associate professor in the Sackler Faculty of Medicine and the Sagol School of Neuroscience at Tel Aviv University, and co-author of the paper:

“Since telomere shortening is considered the ‘Holy Grail’ of the biology of ageing, many pharmacological and environmental interventions are being extensively explored in the hopes of enabling telomere elongation.

“The significant improvement of telomere length shown during and after these unique HBOT protocols provides the scientific community with a new foundation of understanding that ageing can, indeed, be targeted and reversed at the basic cellular-biological level.”

These results need to be replicated many times to stand as a clinical treatment. Regardless, a healthy diet and regular exercise continue to be the best guard against unhealthy ageing.

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy, which isn’t cheap, had proved to be a reliable treatment for carbon monoxide poisoning, crush injuries, healing problem wounds, soft-tissue infections, significant blood loss and other ailments.