Infant steps towards anti-ageing elixir?

S'pore scientist finds human gene that rejuvenates, repairs body tissues

AN ELIXIR which promises eternal youth may not be so mythical after all. A Singaporean scientist has discovered that it might just exist - in our bodies.

A gene known as Lin28a, which regulates growth and development in juveniles, but declines in level as people age, was found to grow back hair and repair cartilage, bone, skin and other tissues when re-activated in adult mice.

Tissue repair in the young has always been more active in all creatures but scientists have never fully understood why.

Genome Institute of Singapore researcher Ng Shyh-Chang and his collaborators from the Boston Children's Hospital in the United States had suspected that the gene might play a role but the revelation still startled them.

"We were surprised that what was previously believed to be a mundane, cellular 'housekeeping' function would be so important for tissue repair," said the 29-year-old, who conducted the study while pursuing his PhD at Harvard Medical School.

Dr George Daley, the study's senior investigator, said: "It sounds like science fiction but Lin28a could be part of a healing cocktail that gives adults the superior tissue repair seen in juvenile animals."

The team's findings were published in the leading scientific journal Cell on Thursday.

The scientists found that Lin28a enhanced metabolism in mitochondria, the energy-producing "power plants" in cells.

By triggering production of certain metabolic enzymes normally more active in embryos, the mitochondria was able to generate the extra energy needed to grow new tissue.

But any "youth elixir" still has a way to go.

The team has yet to find a safe way to introduce the gene back into human cells to boost its levels, said Dr Ng. And it had little effect in rejuvenating certain tissues in the mice, such as the ones in the heart, for instance.

But Dr Ng believes that scientists will eventually find other avenues to boost mitochondria metabolism without requiring the gene.

"This is just the first crack at a longstanding mystery that has confused and stumped scientists for a very long time," he said.

So can the power of science really achieve the holy grail of slowing or even stopping the process of ageing?

While acknowledging the infancy of his research, Dr Ng ventured: "It's possible that this will happen within our lifetime."

davidee@sph.com.sg