Long before Juan Ponce de León searched for the Fountain of Youth, humans were already seeking a means to preserve their youth. Now geneticists could be one step closer to unlocking the secret.
Researchers uncovered an internal clock embedded in our genetic makeup that’s capable of measuring the biological age of organs – or even cancer cells. While the research is preliminary, it could offer important clues as to why we age, and what speeds up or slows down the aging process.
As it turns out, our biological clock's rate speeds up or slows down depending on a person's age, ticking faster from birth through the teenage years, and slowing to a constant rate around age 20.
The cold dish of irony is that not every body part ages at the same rate. Women’s breast tissue, for instance, ages faster than other parts. This may explain why breast cancer is the single most common cancer for women after skin cancer.
The “epigenetic clock," discovered by UCLA professor of human genetics Steve Horvath and his team also revealed that the biological age of diseased tissues is much older than healthy tissues in the body.
“Healthy breast tissue is about two to three years older than the rest of a woman's body," said Horvath in a written statement. "If a woman has breast cancer, the healthy tissue next to the tumor is about 12 years older than the rest of her body.”
It’s no secret, as we age, the likelihood of cancer increases even in people where there is no family history of cancer.
The clock ranked cancerous tissue on average 36 years older than other tissue, which could offer an explanation as to why age is a major risk factor for many cancers in both sexes. This research was published in the October 21, 2103 issue of Genome Biology Journal.
Horvath tested the clock's effectiveness by comparing a tissue's biological age to its chronological age. The clock repeatedly proved accurate.
"It's surprising that one could develop a clock that reliably keeps time across the human anatomy," he admitted. "My approach really compared apples and oranges, or in this case, very different parts of the body: the brain, heart, lungs, liver, kidney and cartilage."