Scientists Just Reprogrammed Mice to Live Longer. Humans May Be Next.

cute white laboratory rat in the hands of a researcher

Scientists Reprogramming Mice to Live LongerOlena Kurashova – Getty Images

  • The concept of reprogramming genes has been buzzworthy in scientific circles for over a decade.

  • A San Diego biotech company now claims it extended the life of mice 7 percent longer with gene reprogramming.

  • Gene reprogramming is ripe for inviting cancer.

Scientists just extended the life of mice 7 percent thanks to gene reprogramming, according to a new paper released by the San Diego biotech company Rejuvenate Bio.

The concept of gene reprogramming has enticed the scientific community for over a decade. It even led to a 2012 Nobel Prize for Japanese biologist Shinya Yamanaka. From there, the idea went to the laboratory. Then to mice. After rodents, could humans be next in the great search for a longer life?

Gene reprogramming exposes individual cells to proteins active in early-stage embryos, essentially working to turn old cells into something youthful, akin to a stem cell.

In the Rejuvenate Bio effort—the company published a paper that hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed and was noted for a lack of documentation on which cells were changed—the mice given the treatment were equivalent to a 77-year-old human (about 124 weeks old in mice years). The treated mice lived an extra 9 weeks, on average, beyond the control mice—good for a 7 percent increase in life. The experiment also produced a near-immediate effect.

“This is a powerful technology, and here is the proof of concept,” Noah Davidohn, chief scientific officer of Rejuvenate, told MIT Technology Review. “I wanted to show that it’s actually something we can do in our elderly population.”

Gene reprogramming is still a nascent—and divisive—field. Early research was, of course, limited to single cells. And mice have far fewer cells than a human. Expanding the concept to a human—with the upside of a 7 percent increase in life expectancy as our initial benchmark, no less—brings with it scale that increases risk.

Plus, manipulating cells opens the door for cancerous risks, already considered a common issue with the process.

“It’s a beautiful intellectual exercise,” Stanford University professor Vittorio Sebastiano told Technology Review, “but I would shy away from doing anything remotely similar to a person.”

Rejuvenate Bio will continue its research while other companies target their own experiments to specific cells. The future may find that gene reprogramming works well for some cells, giving a new tool against specific diseases. Of course, the future may show us quite a range when it comes to gene reprogramming.

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