The cure for aging has long been the Holy Grail of medicine. Emerging technologies, like the gene editing tool CRISPR, have opened the floodgates to what may be possible for the future of medical science. The key to slowing down aging, however, may lie in a simple and age-old technique.
For the first time, Israeli scientists showed the reversal of aging in two key biological clocks in humans, by giving patients oxygen therapy in a pressurized chamber. The results appear in the journal Aging.
As you grow older and your cells continue to divide, sequences of DNA at the end of chromosomes, called telomeres, gradually become shorter. Once the telomeres become too short, the cell can no longer replicate and eventually dies. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Telomere shortening can prevent rogue cancerous cells from multiplying uncontrollably, but unfortunately, this comes with the cost of genetic aging. These geriatric cells that can no longer divide are also known as senescent cells, which accumulate over the period of your life and are believed to be one of the leading causes of aging.
In a clinical trial, 35 healthy adults aged 64 and older received 60 oxygen therapy sessions daily over the course of three months. The scientists collected the subjects’ blood samples prior to treatment, after the first and second months of the trial, and two weeks after the trial was over. None of the patients had any lifestyle, diet, or medication changes throughout the study, and yet their blood work showed significant increases in the telomere length of their cells and a decrease in the number of their senescent cells.
This isn’t the first time doctors have put patients into pressurized oxygen chambers. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) has been used for almost a century to treat a number of illnesses, including decompression sickness in deep-sea divers and carbon monoxide poisoning.
The therapy involves breathing pure oxygen in a pressurized chamber, which causes blood and tissues in your body to become saturated with oxygen. Strangely enough, this can trigger similar physiological effects that occur when your body is starved of oxygen, known as hypoxia. While previous research shows these effects can stimulate your brain and increase your cognitive abilities, this is the first study to show the therapy may also reverse aging.
“Since telomere shortening is considered the ‘Holy Grail’ of the biology of aging, many pharmacological and environmental interventions are being extensively explored in the hopes of enabling telomere elongation,” said study coauthor Shai Efrati, a professor at the Sackler School of Medicine at Tel Aviv University. He continued:
“The significant improvement of telomere length shown during and after these unique HBOT protocols provides the scientific community with a new foundation of understanding that aging can, indeed, be targeted and reversed at the basic cellular-biological level.”
This also isn’t the first time scientists have claimed to reverse aging. Several studies using pharmacological drugs, such as danazol, have been shown to elongate telomeres. Additionally, lifestyle changes, including exercise and healthy diets, have been shown to have small effects on the growth of telomeres.
“Until now, interventions such as lifestyle modifications and intense exercise were shown to have some inhibition effect on the expected telomere length shortening. However, what is remarkable to note in our study, is that in just three months of HBOT, we were able to achieve such significant telomere elongation—at rates far beyond any of the current available interventions or lifestyle modifications,” study coauthor Amir Hadanny, a neurosurgeon at the Sagol Center of Hyperbaric Medicine and Research in Israel, explained in the press release.
The therapy could be an inexpensive alternative to more intrusive treatments using pharmaceuticals. However, the idea of spending many hours per day in a pressurized chamber may turn away patients.