In a breakthrough, scientists have discovered a way to rejuvenate old human cells, not only making them look physically younger, but also coaxing them to behave like young cells and start dividing.
Researchers from University of Exeter in the UK worked with senescent cells, which have stopped dividing.
Within hours of treatment the older cells started to divide, and had longer telomeres - the caps on the chromosomes which shorten as we age.
This discovery builds on earlier findings which showed that a class of genes called splicing factors are progressively switched off as we age.
Researchers found that splicing factors can be switched back on with chemicals, making senescent cells not only look physically younger, but start to behave more like young cells and start dividing.
They applied compounds called reversatrol analogues, chemicals based on a substance naturally found in red wine, dark chocolate, red grapes and blueberries, to cells in culture.
The chemicals caused splicing factors, which are progressively switched off as we age to be switched back on.
Within hours, the cells looked younger and started to rejuvenate, behaving like young cells and dividing.
The research, published in the journal BMC Cell Biology, has the potential to lead to therapies which could help people age better, without experiencing some of the degenerative effects of getting old.
Most people by the age of 85 have experienced some kind of chronic illness, and as people get older they are more prone to stroke, heart disease and cancer.
"This is a first step in trying to make people live normal lifespans, but with health for their entire life. Our data suggests that using chemicals to switch back on the major class of genes that are switched off as we age might provide a means to restore function to old cells," said Lorna Harries, professor at the University of Exeter.
"This demonstrates that when you treat old cells with molecules that restore the levels of the splicing factors, the cells regain some features of youth," Haries said.
"They are able to grow, and their telomeres - the caps on the ends of the chromosomes that shorten as we age - are now longer, as they are in young cells," she said.