Common Safe Chemical Reverses Aging in Human Cells

It’s rare that a respected scientific researcher will talk about a potential anti-aging drug as working “like magic.”

But those are the words of Kan Cao, associate professor of cell biology and molecular genetics at the University of Maryland.

Even more startling, the drug is a common, inexpensive and safe chemical called methylene blue that is used to clean fish tanks..

Cao’s research team found that small doses of methylene blue can almost completely repair defects in cells afflicted with progeria, the genetic illness that causes premature aging.

Children with the disease develop thin, wrinkled skin, fragile bones and joints, full-body hair loss and organ failure.Most do not survive past their teen years.

Significantly, the drug can also repair age-related damage to healthy cells.

The study was published today online in the journal Aging Cell.

“We tried very hard to examine the effect of methylene blue on all known progeria symptoms within the cell,” said Dr. Cao. “It seems that methylene blue rescues every affected structure within the cell. When we looked at the treated cells, it was hard to tell that they were progeria cells at all. It’s like magic.”

The team found that methylene blue reverses the damages to both the nucleus and mitochondria in progeria cells remarkably well. The precise mechanism is still unclear, but treating the cells with the chemical effectively improved every defect, causing progeria cells to be almost indistinguishable from normal cells.

Cao and her colleagues also tested methylene blue in healthy cells allowed to age normally. The normal aging process degrades mitochondria over time, causing these older mitochondria to resemble the mitochondria seen in progeria cells. Once again, methylene blue repaired these damages.

“We have repeated these experiments many times and have not seen a single one fail,” said study author Zheng-Mei Xiong. “This is such an exciting result with so much potential, both for progeria and normal aging. Methylene blue is common and inexpensive. It is fully water soluble and non-toxic. People use it to clean fish tanks because it is so safe for the fish eggs.”

Because methylene blue can repair the cell defects that ultimately lead to whole-body symptoms in progeria patients, Cao, Xiong and their colleagues believe methylene blue could be used as a treatment for the disease in the future.

Similarly, methylene blue could show promise as an over-the-counter treatment for the symptoms of normal aging, perhaps as an additive to cosmetic products or nutritional supplements.

Cao and her team are moving quickly to complete the next crucial step: testing in animal models.

“So far, we have done all of our work in stem cell lines. It is critical to see whether the effect extends to whole animals,” Cao explained. “We also want to see if methylene blue can repair specific effects of progeria in various cell types, such as bone, skin, cardiovascular cells and  and others. Further down the line, other groups might begin human clinical trials. It’s very exciting.”