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Aging Reversed in Mice: Have Scientists Found Key to Immortality?

Aging Mice Made Young: Have We Discovered Immmortality?
Aging mice, right, regrew hair after gene therapy. (Dana-Farber Cancer Institute) Dana-Farber Cancer Institute

(CBS) Toss the Rogaine and Viagra? Not just yet.

But Harvard scientists have found that some effects of aging, such as hair loss, infertility and decreased brain function, can be stopped. And not just stopped: the scientists' research, published today in the journal Nature, showed that it's possible even to reverse the signs of aging.

"Basically, what this study teaches us is that there's a point of return in aging," senior author Dr. Ronald A. DePinho, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, told CBS News.

DePinho and his team looked at the protective caps of repetitive DNA, called telomeres, found at the ends of chromosomes. Each time cells divide, their telomeres shorten, causing cells to age. Researchers hoped that by amping up the gene that controls production of an enzyme called telomerase they could keep chromosomes from getting shorter, thereby reversing the signs of aging.

The mice were engineered to have low levels of telomerase. As a result, they suffered from the same sorts of health problems that affect 80-year-old humans. Think of them as gray, balding mice that can't have kids and have memory problems.

The study showed that boosting telomerase levels triggered a "dramatic reversal in the signs of aging," DePinho said. Brain function improved, and the mice regained their fertility and youthful-looking fur.

So does this mean we've found the key to immortality?

Alas, no. The treated mice did not live longer than normal mice. But the research could lead eventually to a antiaging pill, DePinho said, as long as additional research confirms the findings and doesn't turn up any dangerous side effects, such as increased risk of cancer.

So until that elixir shows up on drugstore shelves, you might try eating lots of brain-healthy foods such as green, leafy vegetables and fish and getting plenty of exercise.

Or maybe wear your baseball cap backwards.

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