They say that death and taxes are the only certainties in life, and while we’re still waiting for a scientific solution to the latter of these problems, researchers from Tel Aviv University may have just made a breakthrough in the quest for eternal youth. In a new study in the journal Aging, the team explains how they were able to halt and reverse certain key aspects of the cellular aging process in human subjects, using a method called hyperbaric oxygen treatment (HBOT).
The extent to which our bodies deteriorate as we get older is believed to be dependent upon sequences of DNA called telomeres, which are located at the ends of chromosomes and protect the genetic material contained within. Yet these telomeres degrade and shorten slightly each time a cell divides, until eventually they become so worn down that they can no longer function and the whole chromosome becomes unstable.
At this point, the cell becomes senescent, meaning it can longer continue dividing and replicating itself and is therefore essentially dead. As such, the shortening of telomeres and the generation of senescent cells are central to bodily aging, and are key targets for the reversal of this process.
Hyperbaric oxygen treatments involve the inhalation of oxygen under high pressure in order to force more oxygen into the blood. The technique is known to upregulate the expression of certain antioxidant genes and has been found to reduce oxidative damage. For this reason, it is commonly used to treat non-healing wounds, radiation injuries, and carbon monoxide poisoning, although the authors of the new study wanted to see if it could also protect telomeres from damage and increase their length.
To find out, they administered 60 daily HBOT sessions to 35 people, all of whom were over the age of 64. During treatment, participants breathed 100 percent oxygen at a pressure of 2 absolute atmospheres for a period of 90 minutes.
The researchers analyzed participants’ white blood cells at the start of the trial, as well as on days 30 and 60, and again two weeks after the cessation of treatment. Results indicated that telomeres lengthened by more than 20 percent in T helper, T cytotoxic, natural killer and B cells by the end of the experiment. The most dramatic increase was seen in B cells, which displayed an average telomere lengthening of 37.63 percent two weeks after the final HBOT session.
Likewise, treatment was associated with a significant drop in senescent blood cells, with the number of senescent T helper cells falling by 37.30 percent at the two-week follow-up point.
Commenting on these remarkable findings, study author Shai Efrati explained in a statement that “telomere shortening is considered the ‘Holy Grail’ of the biology of aging.”
“Researchers around the world are trying to develop pharmacological and environmental interventions that enable telomere elongation. Our HBOT protocol was able to achieve this, proving that the aging process can in fact be reversed at the basic cellular-molecular level,” he said.
It’s important to note that this doesn’t mean that we can now stop people from getting old or dying, but it’s certainly a significant step towards preventing and treating certain illnesses that are associated with aging. And of course, if it does result in an extended human lifespan then it will also mean more years of paying taxes.