Steve Jobs once said, ‘death is the destination we all share.’ It is a scary truth, but medical science has been working as hard as possible to push the reality of death a little further away. The search for the fountain of youth may have spanned thousands of years, but no one has been closer than when in a laboratory. Now Harvard researchers have discovered a protein in young blood that could reverse the effects on an aging heart.
For the past five years Richard T. Lee, a cardiologist, and Amy Wagers, a stem cell biologist – both faculty members at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute – have been working to understand why when they injected young mice blood into older mice, the latter’s heart began to function better. Their teams were able to isolate a protein, GDF-11 – which humans also have – that causes the reduction in size and thickness of the hearts, factors linked to heart failure.
The most common form of heart failure is actually a form that’s not caused by heart attacks but is very much related to the heart aging. In this study, we were able to show that a protein that circulates in the blood is related to this aging process, and if we gave older mice this protein, we could reverse the heart aging in a very short period of time.
The discovery could have a dramatic effect on how we approach the treatment of ailing hearts and aging in general. Added Wagers:
As we age, there are many changes that occur in different parts of the body and those changes are often associated with a decline in the function of our bodies. One of the interests of my laboratory is in understanding why this happens and whether it is an inevitable consequence of aging, or if it might be reversible.
The teams are now working towards clinical trials, which could take another four or five years to begin but it is already clear how monumental this research could be. As Lee succinctly put it: ‘This is the coolest thing I’ve ever been a part of.’