(ORDO NEWS) — Every time a cell inside your body reproduces, your youth is gone. This is due to the shortening of telomeres, structures that “cover” the tips of our chromosomes.
Now, Israeli scientists say they have been able to reverse this process and lengthen telomeres in a small study involving 26 patients.
Participants were kept in a pressure chamber with oxygen for five sessions of 90 minutes per week for three months, causing the telomeres of some of their cells to expand by up to 20 percent.
This is an impressive claim, and many other researchers have tried unsuccessfully in the past to implement it. But it’s certainly worth noting that this is a small sample size and the results will need to be reproduced before we can get too excited.
However, the fact that hyperbaric oxygen therapy appears to affect telomere length is a compelling link that deserves further study.
Lead researcher Shair Efrati, a physician from the Faculty of Medicine and the Sagol School of Neurology at Tel Aviv University, explained that the inspiration for their experiment was somewhat unusual.
“After an experiment with twins conducted by NASA, in which one of the twins was sent into space and the other remained on Earth, demonstrated a significant difference in the length of their telomeres, we realized that changes in the external environment can affect the cell nucleus, changes that occur during aging, ”said Efrati.
Telomeres are repeating pieces of code that act as the DNA equivalent of the plastic or metal aglet that covers the end of a string.
They copy themselves along with the rest of the chromosomes whenever a cell divides. However, with each replication, tiny pieces of code from the very end of the sequence cannot get into a new copy, as a result of which the newly created chromosome becomes slightly shorter than its predecessor.
Anyone who has lost their lace cap knows that lace loses its integrity quickly. Likewise, shorter telomeres place sequences further down the chromosome with an increased risk of dangerous mutations.
These mutations coincide with changes that predispose us to a range of age-related conditions, not least diseases such as cancer.
This does not necessarily mean that we are aging because our telomeres are shrinking, but there is a link between telomere length and health that researchers are keen to investigate further.
“Longer telomeres correlate with better cell performance,” Efriti explained.
The real achievement would be to completely flip our chromosomal hourglass and reclaim lost telomere regions. The fact that this occurs naturally in the tissues lining the intestines with a high metabolic rate using an enzyme called telomerase has stimulated research over the years.
Some studies have found the possibility of tiny increases, perhaps a few percent, with supplements such as vitamin D.
But while there are already many publicized promises on the market to reverse aging in living people, there is no really science-based method we can use to get telomeres in a 20-year-old person.
This is why the latest research is getting so much attention. A recent study showed that telomeres in white blood cells taken from 26 people regained about a fifth of their lost length.
The key point seems to be hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) – the absorption of pure oxygen while in a sealed chamber for a long time; in this case, five 90-minute sessions per week for three months.
In the past, HBOT has been controversial over claims that it can treat a range of diseases. This is usually therapy given by a diver who swam out of the ocean too quickly or to kill oxygen-sensitive microbes in a wound that simply won’t heal in any other way.
But an oxygen-rich environment is also the cause of a strange paradox in which the body creates many of the genetic and molecular changes that usually occur in a low oxygen environment.
In this study, the researchers were able to show that the genetic changes triggered by HBOT increased telomeres and also potentially positively influenced the health of the tissues themselves.
A slightly smaller sample of volunteers also showed significant reductions in senescent T cells, tissues that make up a vital part of our immune system’s targeted response against viruses.
Whether you sit in a small tank every day for a quarter of a year is a matter of preference, but future research may help make the whole process more efficient.
“After we have demonstrated the inverse effect of aging in a cohort of researchers using a predefined HBOT protocol, further research is needed to optimize the specific protocol for each individual,” Efrati said.
In a press release from the Center for Hyperbaric Medicine and Research, Sagol Efrati says understanding telomere shortening “is considered the ‘holy grail’ of the biology of aging.”
As significant as telomere shrinkage may seem, the failure of our biology as we age is no doubt a complex issue involving much more than just missing chromosomes.
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