Over the course of a person’s life, telomeres, repetitive nucleotide sequences at the ends of chromosomes, decrease in length due to cell division. When they get too short, the DNA they protect starts to decay, resulting in cellular death.
The 2009 Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres, granting greater understanding of how ageing works.
Now, researchers from Israel say they have found a way to extend the length of these telomeres, and in the process, possible ‘reverse’ the process of ageing—and extend a person’s life.
“Aging is characterized by the progressive loss of physiological capacity. At the cellular level, two key hallmarks of the aging process include telomere length (TL) shortening and cellular senescence [biological ageing]. Repeated intermittent hyperoxic exposures, using certain hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) protocols, can induce regenerative effects which normally occur during hypoxia,” authors Yafit Hachmo, Amir Hadanny, Ramzia Abu Hamed et al write in a study published in the journal Aging.
The study, by researchers from the Shamir Medical Center, Zerifin; the Israel Sackler School of Medicine, Tel-Aviv University and Ilan University investigated the efficacy of hyperbaric oxygen treatments (HBOT)—exposure to high-pressure oxygen at various concentrations inside a pressure chamber—in slowing down or reversing the ageing process at a cellular level, Professor Shai Efrati explained to Science Daily.
The researchers exposed 35 healthy individuals aged 64 or over to a series of 60 hyperbaric sessions over a period of 90 days. Each participant provided blood samples before, during and at the end of the treatments as well as some time after the series of treatments concluded. The researchers then analyzed various immune cells in the blood and compared the results.
The findings indicated that the treatments actually reversed the ageing process in two of its major aspects: The telomeres at the ends of the chromosomes grew longer instead of shorter, at a rate of 20-38 per cent for the different cell types; and the percentage of senescent cells in the overall cell population was reduced significantly—by 11-37 per cent depending on cell type.
Essentially, the experiment was able to increase telomere length to the same level as it was 25 years earlier for subjects. The result is what Professor Efrati dubs the “holy grail” of biological ageing. "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 ageing process can in fact be reversed at the basic cellular-molecular level,” he was reported as saying.
In fact, removing the lengthening of telomeres was listed as one of the seven programmes that could show promise in reversing ageing according to the Sens Research Foundation. A 2013 study published in Cell identified telomere attrition and cellular senescence are one of the nine “hallmarks of ageing”—suggesting there is still a way to go before human immortality can become a reality.
Curiously, the idea that mild or temporary oxygen deprivation could actually strengthen the body has already been touted by advocates of the 'Wim Hof method' and its various breathing exercises.
Michael Jackson, too, was famous for having a hyperbaric oxygen chamber in which he would nap in a bid to "live forever". Olympic medallist Michael Phelps has also used such chambers to recover from his brutal training regime.
Cancer cells too are known to rely on reversing telomere shortening in order to achieve a degree of immortality.
For now, the Israeli scientists appear to be onto something. With the study published in a peer-review journal, it will need to be tested further by the scientific community—and promises to be an interesting field of study.