A treatment that could turn back the ravages of time is edging closer as scientists have discovered how to ‘reprogram’ cells to stop them growing old.
The process involves taking skin cells and making them partly revert to how they were in the embryo.
Mature mice that underwent the process were found to appear younger, had better functioning hearts and lived 30 per cent longer. Translated to humans it would mean - potentially, at least - the average human lifespan would reach 108.
Although women tend to outlive men, the average life expectancy in currently 81 in the UK, and 78 in the US.
Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, author of the study, said: ‘Our study shows that aging may not have to proceed in one single direction.
'It has plasticity and, with careful modulation, aging might be reversed.’
Professor Belmonte, of the Salk Institute in California, explained that the cell is reprogrammed by altering genetic factors that change it to become like a stem cell – ‘universal’ cells present in the embryo that can transform into any cell in the body.
Alejandro Ocampo, first author of the paper, said: ‘What we and other stem-cell labs have observed is that when you induce cellular reprogramming, cells look younger.
‘The next question was whether we could induce this rejuvenation process in a live animal.’
Converting large numbers of the body’s cells back into stem cells could lead to organ failure or death, the authors said.
The team used DNA reprogramming methods in live mice with progeria, the premature aging disease progeria, which also affects humans.
Compared to untreated mice, the reprogrammed mice looked younger.
Their cardiovascular and other organ function improved and - most surprising of all - they lived 30% longer, yet did not develop cancer. The process also worked in normal, disease-free mice which experienced improvement in the regeneration capacity of the pancreas and muscle tissue.
Professor Belmonte said: ‘Obviously, mice are not humans and we know it will be much more complex to rejuvenate a person.
‘But this study shows that ageing is a very dynamic and plastic process, and therefore will be more amenable to therapeutic interventions than what we previously thought.’
He said it could be 10 years before a clinical trial is ready to take place in humans.