Researchers Claim to Achieve First Step in Reverse-Aging

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In a recent paper published in Aging, researchers say they have achieved reverse cellular aging in a single line of human cells via a “chemical cocktail.” Professor David Sinclair of Harvard Medical School Boston, the primary author of the paper, previously made headlines in the past few years when this effect was achieved in the cells of mice and monkeys for the first time.

“We identify six chemical cocktails, which, in less than a week and without compromising cellular identity, restore a youthful genome-wide transcript profile and reverse transcriptomic age,” the paper states. “Thus, rejuvenation by age reversal can be achieved, not only by genetic, but also chemical means.”

Of course, this is a first step in a long chain of steps that need to be taken before anything like an ‘anti-aging drug’ is anything but fiction.

Biogerontologist Matt Kaeberlein, who leads a lab at the University of Washington Medical Center argued on Twitter that this news could be easily overblown. “This is a preliminary report of a new screening method in one cell line using indirect measures of epigenetic state. There is no evidence here for reprogramming in a tissue, organ, or whole animal,” Kaeberlein says.

If you’re a little lost, so was I.

Let’s Talk About Gene Therapy

We actually achieved cellular anti-aging over a decade ago, when Shinya Yamanaka and Sir John B. Gurdon won a Nobel Prize in 2012 for their groundbreaking research.

According to the Nobel Prize press release from the time, Yamanaka and Sir Gurdon demonstrated “that mature, specialized cells can be reprogrammed to become immature cells capable of developing into all tissues of the body. Their findings have revolutionized our understanding of how cells and organisms develop.”

So far, the way scientists have achieved this is with gene therapy, where new genetic material is introduced to correct damaged or missing DNA. According to the FDA, that new genetic material is most often transferred via a virus, which must be modified beforehand to ensure it is no longer capable of spreading infectious disease.

Three slides showing matured human skin cells (left), restored with chemicals (right), which can be seen from the way proteins (red blobs) change from streaky to concentrated. Center slide shows transition.
Matured human skin cells (left), restored with chemicals (right), which can be seen from the way proteins (red blobs) change from streaky to concentrated. Image credit: J. -H. Yang, Harvard Medical School.

“The scientific field for gene therapy products is fast-paced and rapidly evolving—ushering in a new approach to the treatment of vision loss, cancer, and other serious and rare diseases,” the FDA explains. But that doesn’t mean it’s ready for the public. “Before a gene therapy can be marketed for use in humans, the product must be tested in clinical studies for safety and effectiveness so FDA scientists can consider whether the risks of the therapy are acceptable considering the potential benefits.”

Professor Sinclair is a part of that field of research as well, having previously demonstrated successful eyesight restoration in mice and monkeys using gene therapy techniques.

How Far Away Is the Anti-Aging Pill?

More than a decade, at least.

Dr. Neil Paulvin, a New York–based regenerative and functional medicine doctor, told Fortune that the study does indicate a pill to extend lifespan is coming. “Some of the cocktail may have potential for aging 15, 20, 50 years from now,” Pauvlin explains. But that doesn’t mean “that there’s something coming tomorrow that’s going to help them live another 10 years.”

That doesn’t mean we can’t be excited about the potential, just that we need to slow our roll a little. This research is still in the very early stages, and we’re a long way off from any kind of ‘anti-aging pill,’ though that is clearly the goal.

“This new discovery offers the potential to reverse aging with a single pill, with applications ranging from improving eyesight to effectively treating numerous age-related diseases,” Sinclair said in a press release.

In case you were wondering, Professor Sinclair and his team are keeping those “chemical cocktails” a secret for now, as they continue towards human trials, which they expect to begin within the decade.

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