Forever young: ‘A magic anti-ageing elixir inside us all’

A new therapy being trialled on autoimmune diseases may also be a cure for ageing.

A new therapy being trialled on autoimmune diseases may also be a cure for ageing. Photo: Getty

This week there has been a lot of excitement among international researchers about a novel treatment for autoimmune diseases that might actually cure some of them.

It’s not how researchers ordinarily talk. To speak of a ‘cure’ is deemed too far fetched and irresponsible.

But, as reported at STAT News, in recent years, researchers in Germany have begun testing the potential of CAR-T therapy to help people afflicted with autoimmune diseases, such as lupus, multiple sclerosis or rheumatoid arthritis.

What is CAR-T therapy?

Chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy was initially developed as a cell-based gene therapy for cancers.

It works by getting immune cells called T cells, a type of white blood cell, to fight cancer by changing them in the lab so they can find and destroy specific cancer cells.

The American Cancer Society says CAR-T therapy was shown to be “very helpful’ in treating some types of cancer, especially blood cancers, even when other treatments are no longer working.

According to STAT, in a study of 15 patients, the researchers eliminated or reduced symptoms and disease biomarkers with a single infusion of CAR-T cells designed to target B cells, immune cells that play a key role in driving autoimmunity.

Eight of the patients had lupus, four with systemic sclerosis (scleroderma), and three with idiopathic inflammatory myositis, a rare muscle disease.

There were “no relapses among lupus patients, who were monitored for up to two years after treatment”.

The myositis and sclerosis patients, who had shorter-term follow-ups (usually about three to six months but up to a year) “saw their symptoms significantly lessen”.

How far can this therapy go?

Three days after the STAT report was published came more startling news. CAR-T therapy could make the biggest cure of all.

Researchers from the famed Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) made a bold claim: They have discovered that T cells can be reprogrammed to fight ageing.

In a statement from the laboratory, Assistant Professor Corina Amor Vegas told how, “given the right set of genetic modifications, these white blood cells can attack another group of cells known as senescent cells”.

Senescent cells are those that have stopped replicating. They’re “thought to be responsible for many of the diseases we grapple with later in life”.

As we age, they build up in our bodies, resulting in harmful inflammation.

It’s these cells, in mice, that Amor Vegas and company targeted with CAR-T cells.

And the pay-off?

As a result, the mice ended up living healthier lives.

They had “lower body weight, improved metabolism and glucose tolerance, and increased physical activity”.

Even better, these benefits came “without any tissue damage or toxicity”.

She said that when the CAR-T therapy was given it to aged mice, “they rejuvenate”.

If given it to young mice, “they age slower. No other therapy right now can do this”.

Just one dose has life-long effects

Amor Vegas said the greatest power of CAR-T cells is their longevity.

The team found that “just one dose at a young age can have life-long effects. That single treatment can protect against conditions that commonly occur later in life, like obesity and diabetes”.

She said that T cells “have the ability to develop memory and persist in your body for really long periods, which is very different from a chemical drug”.

She said with CAR-T cells, “you have the potential of getting this one treatment, and then that’s it. For chronic pathologies, that’s a huge advantage”.

Amor Vegas’ lab is now investigating whether the cells let mice live not only healthier but also longer.

If so, she said, “society will be one mouse step closer to the coveted fountain of youth”.

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