Drug developers have long dreamed of discovering a tonic to trip up the aging process, hunting for genetic clues and compounds that could provide a fountain of youth. U.K. researchers say they have found a recipe for immortality--in flatworms. But the worm study might shine a light on ways to prolong human life too, investigators said.
The University of Nottingham researchers dug deeper into the mechanisms that allow flatworms to regenerate tissue in a prolific manner. Chop one of these slimy planarians in half, and two complete worms will grow from the halves--and so on and so on until you end up with thousands of them. What the researchers found was that these worms maintain the length of a component of DNA known as telomeres, which are known for protecting chromosomes and maintaining cell functions, Reuters reported. Shortened telomeres, on the other hand, are markers of short lifespans.
Building on past telomere research that garnered a Nobel Prize in 2009, lead researcher Aziz Aboobaker and his team found that levels of telomerase, an enzyme associated with the telomere gene, rose as the worms were regenerating tissues. And the organism's ability to keep healthy supplies of the enzyme throughout life offers the potential for the worms to be immortal, according to The Telegraph's report on the findings.
"Our data satisfy one of the predictions about what it would take for an animal to be potentially immortal," said Aboobaker, as quoted by Reuters. "The next goals for us are to understand the mechanisms in more detail and to understand more about how you evolve an immortal animal."
The U.K. researcher isn't alone in his quest, and biotech companies have already trudged down the telomere trail, with little to show for it at this point. Harvard researchers have done some telomere tinkering in mice, showing they could activate growth of brains and testes in the critters. And former Geron ($GERN) scientist Bill Andrews, of course, has evangelized the promise of telomeres to lead to new anti-aging drugs, gaining lots of publicity for his views and fending off the naysayers who have tried to discredit him.
No drugs from the research have yet arrived, but the telomere believers and the quest for new anti-aging remedies won't quit.