Belfast Telegraph

There are a lot of wrinkles to this anti-ageing pill

By Mary Kenny

Poor Hillary Clinton. She really began to look her age - 63 - this week, when visiting Bahrain. Her skin was sagging and wrinkly and she had that defeated expression that indicates wear and tear.

Small wonder; she will probably have to take the hit from the WikiLeaks affair after it was disclosed that she allegedly prompted American diplomats to spy on UN officials - and eventually resign from her position as Secretary of State. She indicated as much herself, saying that this would be her "last public position".

Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown - and the burden of responsibility shows in the face and general appearance.

What Hillary needs is a dose of the medicine that will surely be developed as a result of the Harvard Medical School's astonishing new discovery - that the ageing process has successfully been reversed in mice, and that this could be extended to humans.

Professor Ronald DePinho and his team were researching an element of brain structure known as a telomere. Our telomeres gradually fray and shorten as we grow older and this makes our DNA more vulnerable to age, disease and decay. By dosing the laboratory mice with telomerase - the enzyme that forms telomeres - the Harvard boffins found that the ageing process was reversed.

Body organs, including the brain, and tissue that had shown signs of ageing were rejuvenated. A small step for a mouse, maybe - leading to a giant change for humankind?

The elixir of youth is a little way down the road as yet. But pharmacology swiftly follows research, as the development of the contraceptive Pill - scarcely 10 years from lab to market - and Viagra, in half that time, have shown. Although Prof DePinho thinks he will need more years of research, the profit motive will drive the project relentlessly.

Since time immemorial people have dreamed of finding the secret of eternal youth, and the dream exists in many myths and fables, from Tir na nOg to Peter Pan. There will be terrific pressure to take the concept from Harvard to a prescription drug with fabulous global potential for profit.

Applying the mouse technique could be especially helpful to the over-60s such as Mrs Clinton. Reversing the ageing process could enhance brain power as well as appearance and performance.

As in many other cases of social change, this could be great for individuals, but worrying, if not sinister, for society. The natural cycle of life ensures a continuous change of repertory among the working population. In adolescence and young adulthood we are energetic and inventive - most mathematicians (and some poets) peak in their intellectual performance from the age of 18 to about 25. In middle life, people bring continual practice to their skills, so that you get political leaders, great concert pianists and clever business people in their 40s and 50s.

And in their senior years, judgment and experience are supposed to come to the fore, so that High Court judges, physicians who have accumulated vast case knowledge, and scholars with fine memories play a useful role. But eventually comes decline and death, making room for the next generation.

If a Viagra-type drug were available to reverse this there could be a generational war. And if the drug were used to prolong average life expectancy well beyond 100, the strain on resources would be immense.

Specialists working in the field of bio-gerontology say there are many greater priorities than introducing a youth rejuvenator - caring for the elderly who already exist, for example, and addressing the social problems that arise with old age. Most people would do what they could to slow down ageing. If we could get hold of the telomerase drug with which those rodents are being dosed, would we? You bet!

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