Saturday, June 21, 2014

An Anti-aging Blood Protein

A blood protein called Growth Differentiation Factor 11 (GDF11) is one of the factors that keeps tissues and organs youthful.   According to research described in a New York Times article, GDF11 stimulates stem cells within tissues, promoting tissue growth and regeneration.

Not surprisingly, GDF11 is abundant in young animals, but less abundant in older animals.   But here’s the really interesting part; transfusing old mice with the blood of younger animals or giving them GDF11 appears to reverse some of the effects of aging, at least in mice.

That last finding has caught the public’s eye.   People are already asking how to get the stuff on the Internet so they can use it on themselves to try to reverse some of the effects of aging.  From an individual’s perspective that may seem like a good idea (who wouldn’t want to live longer and feel younger?)   But is it really such a good idea?

From a evolutionary biologist’s perspective, it makes sense that GDF11 is found in higher concentrations in the young than the old.  Tissues and organs are still growing and differentiating in the young, so you need the stuff.  But after reproductive age, GDF11’s importance declines.   Aging and death are just a normal part of the life cycle.   In fact, it appears that we’re programmed in our genes to age and die once we are safely past reproductive age.  Yes, we might be able to turn back the clock a little in an individual, but there may be a hidden risk; by encouraging stem cells to divide and differentiate we’d probably be increasing the risk of cancer cell as well.

A basic understanding of how GDF11 regulates normal cell growth and differentiation is certainly of interest.   It may even lead to treatments for specific disorders, such as muscle wasting disorders or Alzheimer’s disease.   But it’s highly unlikely that GDF11 will prove be the magic elixir that can turn back the clock on aging.   There’s undoubtedly a lot more to aging than the slow decline in the concentration of a single blood protein.

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