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Californian boffins find Elixir of Eternal Youth

For mice only. Catherine Zeta Jones not involved

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Mouse-molesting boffins in California have used biochemical signals to rejuvenate elderly, knackered bodily tissues in a fashion normally only achievable by youngsters. However, the scientists insist that they have not yet achieved an immortality drug, and if they had it would only be for mice.

"We're not at a point where we're ready to inject ourselves with [this stuff]" said Dr Morgan Carlson.

Carlson's research was overseen by Irina Conboy, associate prof at UC Berkeley. There doesn't seem to be any doubt that the two boffins are in fact looking for an immortality drug: Conboy has described her research as "Pathways to the Fountain of Youth".

The long-sought elixir of eternal life may not yet be in our grasp, but Conboy and Carlson have managed something promising enough to get them published in Nature, perhaps the most prestigious boffinry journal.

It seems that when we're young, the stem cells in our bodies constantly repair and reinvigorate us. When we get old, this stops happening and pretty soon people are going through your stuff.

"We don't realize it, but as we grow our bodies are constantly being remodeled," according to Conboy. "We are constantly falling apart, but we don't notice it much when we're young because we're always being restored. As we age, our stem cells are prevented, through chemical signals, from doing their jobs."

Apparently one can revitalise stem cells by putting them in the right chemical environment. "When old tissue is placed in an environment of young blood, the stem cells behave as if they are young again," according to the Berkeley press release - in a process not unlike that undergone by wrinkly old Hollywood stars placed in an environment of Catherine Zeta Jones.

Essentially, the Californian researchers were able to persuade muscle tissues in some mice that they were young again. We didn't entirely follow how they did it.

"Interestingly, activated Notch competes with activated pSmad3 for binding to the regulatory regions of the same CDK inhibitors in the stem cell," said Professor Conboy.

That certainly is interesting.

"We found that Notch is capable of physically kicking off pSmad3 from the promoters for the CDK inhibitors within the stem cell's nucleus, which" - as any fool would realise - "tells us that a precise manipulation of the balance of these pathways would allow the ability to control stem cell responses."

Diddling with Notch and pSmad3 levels using "an established method of RNA interference" allowed Conboy and Carlson to manipulate TGF-beta proteins and fire up the dormant stem cells of a group of elderly mice.

The octogenarian murines "showed levels of cellular regeneration that were comparable to their much younger peers", apparently. But people shouldn't just start swigging down Notch, pSmad3 and TGF-beta at random. Cellular regeneration, out of hand, is sometimes just another name for cancer.

Still, the Californian brainboxes seem cautiously optimistic.

"When we are young, there is an optimal balance between Notch and TGF-beta," according to Conboy. "We need to find out what the levels of these chemicals are in the young so we can calibrate the system when we're older. If we can do that, we could rejuvenate tissue repair for a very long time."

One thing's for sure - all this could have serious consequences for the mighty Japanese robotics industry, currently tooling up to make billions looking after the increasingly wrinkly populace of the Land of the Rising Sun. The Berkeley elixir-of-youth researchers had best watch their backs. ®

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