Many anti-aging scientists have been targeting their research at senescent cells. These are old cells that have stopped dividing and can be the cause of many age-related diseases. Although generally cleared out of the body by the immune system, these senescent cells tend to accumulate as we get older and our immune clearing mechanism becomes ineffective.

Senolytics are a new class of drugs designed to clear these senescent cells from the body and recent animal studies have been proving tantalizingly successful in extending healthspan. This latest study from scientists at the Universities of Exeter and Brighton takes a different approach to the problem. Instead of clearing these senescent cells out of the body, the team has found a way to rejuvenate them, making them behave like young cells again.

“This is a first step in trying to make people live normal lifespans, but with health for their entire life,” says team leader Professor Lorna Harries. “Our data suggests that using chemicals to switch back on the major class of genes that are switched off as we age might provide a means to restore function to old cells.”

The key to this new treatment are compounds called resveratrol analogs. Resveratrol is a compound found naturally in dark chocolate, blueberries and, most prominently, red wine. The health benefits of resveratrol are not entirely clear despite receiving a decent amount of scientific attention over the past couple of decades.

This new study set out to engineer a novel compound based on resveratrol and then examine its effects on living human cells in a laboratory. The results have been encouraging. Within hours of the senescent cells being treated with the resveratrol analogs they started to display more splicing factors – proteins that engage the activity of the cells. The cells also expressed longer telomeres, which are known to get shorter as a person ages.

“When I saw some of the cells in the culture dish rejuvenating I couldn’t believe it,” says Eva Latorre, one of the researchers working on the project. “These old cells were looking like young cells. It was like magic. I repeated the experiments several times and in each case the cells rejuvenated. I am very excited by the implications and potential for this research.”

The research is still in its early stages but it suggests an entirely new avenue for drug treatments that can battle the onslaught of degenerative aging-related diseases and help increase the healthspan of senior citizens.