Scientists may have stumbled upon a way to produce real-life Benjamin Button-style age reversal in humans.
In a small clinical study in California, nine healthy volunteers were asked to take a mixture of growth hormone and two diabetes medications (DHEA and metformin) for one year.
The aim of the trial was to see if they could restore tissue in the thymus gland, which is crucial for efficient immune function.
However, as well as rejuvenating participants' immune systems, the drug cocktail shaved an average of 2.5 years of their biological ages.
The results were a surprise even to the scientists who organised the trial.
"I'd expected to see slowing down of the clock, but not a reversal," geneticist Steve Horvath at the University of California, Los Angeles, told the journal Nature . "That felt kind of futuristic."
Biological age is measured by analysing marks on a person's genomes – known as their "epigenetic clock".
Horvath used four different epigenetic clocks to assess each patient's biological age, and found significant reversal for each trial participant in all of the tests.
The researchers cautioned the findings are preliminary, because the trial was small and there was no control group.
However, Horvath said the biological effect of the treatment was "robust".
“Because we could follow the changes within each individual, and because the effect was so very strong in each of them, I am optimistic,” he said.
If the findings are confirmed by further research, it could have huge implications for for healthcare, the treatment of disease, cancer and ageing in general.
"Our study suggests a cocktail of relatively safe substances can achieve a distant dream from science fiction novels," Horvath told The Times .
The findings were published on 5 September in Aging Cell .
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