Reversing Artificially Accelerated Aging is Not Interesting

The popular press will give just as much attention to an advance that extends life in healthy laboratory animals as they will to a technology demonstration that even partially reverses an artificially induced shortness of life. This is a problem, because the former is worthy of our attention, while it is almost always the case that the latter is not. Here is another example of the type from today's news:

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center genetically altered mice to make them age faster, making them old and weak in a span of 17 days. The scientists then injected the mice with stem cell-like cells taken from the muscle of young, healthy mice. The result was they reversed the aging process. The rapidly aging mice lived up to three times longer, dying after 66 days, rather than 28 days. The cell injection also appeared to make the animals healthier, improving their muscle strength and brain blood flow.

No, they did not reverse the aging process. What these researchers achieved was to partially (very partially) ameliorate the unnatural form of accelerated aging that they themselves created in these mice - which could be due to any number of mechanisms that have no application whatsoever to the treatment of normal aging.

You might recall that this same talking point came up a little over a year ago in connection with research into telomerase and accelerated aging:

It's interesting stuff, but unfortunately this present research is being headlined as "scientists reverse aging in mice" - which is absolutely not what was accomplished. Reversing an artificially created accelerating aging condition by removing its cause is not the same thing as intervening in normal aging, and it will rarely have any relevance to normal aging. ... The bottom line is that it is really only worth getting excited over a study that shows extension of life rather than an un-shortening of life. It's all too easy to create short-lived mice and then make them less short-lived - hundreds of studies have achieved this result in one way or another.

But this seems a little too subtle for much of the media - or, more cynically, perhaps it's more a matter that the employees of those press institutions don't really care all that much about accuracy or background for so long as the page views keep rolling in.


Again with the opinions. Where are your facts and figures to back up your assumptions that they didn't discover anything?

Hah, I didn't think so! Reason, is it not possible that they discovered the cure for aging itself, but your personal bias could be keeping you from accepting it?

Posted by: David at January 4th, 2012 4:41 AM

I think it's pretty clear they didn't discover the "cure" to aging itself. That said, I disagree with reason that this is completely bad. Every single article and headline out there which calls into attention the potential malleability and even reversal of the aging process is another bullet put into the ever so slowly dying beast that is public apathy and disbelief regarding the ability to fight aging.

Posted by: Matt at January 4th, 2012 12:58 PM

The mouse model of aging being used is a knockout of a general DNA damage repair protein that causes increased rates of DNA damage under all conditions. While it is true that reversing aging in these mice is less interesting than reversing it in natural mice, it is unfair to classify this kind of work as "uninteresting."

These mice tend to mimic old mice in almost every single aspect aside from their immune system health. Their gene expression, amount of senescent cells, organ morphology, cytokine production, etc are all nearly identical, or completely identical to naturally aged (2.5 years) mice. Finding treatments that work in these mice is a great way of expediting the entire field of antiaging research. Trying to find a technique to increase aging in wild type mice would take between 2.5 and 3 years to even know if you have done ANYTHING, and then it would take months to years AFTER those initial 3 years to determine exactly how effective your strategy is. Using these systems you can run dozens of trials to isolate promising strategies before trying them in WT mice.

So, to call this work uninteresting and to mock the press and the researchers for touting this is, in my opinion, a little harsh. These researchers have discovered a promising tool that they are now testing in wild type mice. The press has also spread the idea that antiaging research is a positive, promising field to a LOT of lay people. Spreading this information to the common person is vital in ensuring that aging research is funded. What about this is a bad thing for the antiaging community?

Posted by: unreasonable at January 4th, 2012 1:12 PM

Gotta agree with David here.

These guys are spending bucks, and there's a chance someone actually took some time to review what they were doing to see that it was useful.

It would be one thing if they engineered mice to delete a certain protein, and then just added the protein. It's not that.

Posted by: jay at January 4th, 2012 5:37 PM
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