In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” an old man gets younger with each passing day, a fantastic concept recently brought to life on film by Brad Pitt. In a lab in Boston, a research team has used genetic engineering to accomplish something similarly curious, turning frail-looking mice into younger versions of themselves by stimulating the regeneration of certain tissues. The study helps explain why certain organs and tissues break down with age and, researchers say, offers hope that one day such age-related deterioration can be thwarted and even reversed.
As we age, many of our cells stop dividing. Our organs, no longer able to rejuvenate themselves, slowly fail. Scientists don’t fully understand what triggers this, but many researchers suspect the gradual shrinking of telomeres, the protective DNA caps on the end of chromosomes. A little bit of telomere is lost each time a cell divides, and telomerase, the enzyme that maintains caps, isn’t typically active in adult tissues. Another piece of evidence: People with longer telomeres tend to live longer, healthier lives, whereas those with shorter telomeres suffer more from age-related diseases, such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and heart disease.
Several years ago, Ronald DePinho, molecular biologist and director of the Belfer Institute of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and colleagues at Harvard Medical School in Boston genetically engineered mice to lack a working copy of the telomerase gene. The animals died at about 6 months—that’s young for mice, which usually live until they are about 3 years old—and seemed to age prematurely. At an early age, their livers and spleens withered, their brains shrank, and they became infertile. By early adulthood, these mice exhibited many of the maladies seen in 80-year-old humans.
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