A drug extracted from a plant used in Chinese medicine has helped immune cells fight HIV and raises the possibility of slowing the ageing process in other parts of our bodies.
The method hinges upon telomeres – caps of repetitive DNA found at the ends of chromosomes. These get shorter as cells age and are thought to affect the cell’s lifespan.
The caps can be rebuilt with an enzyme called telomerase, and some people have suggested it might be possible to extend human life by boosting telomerase production – though this has never been tested.
Now Rita Effros at the University of California in Los Angeles has used a drug that boosts telomerase to enhance the immune response to viruses.
Effros and her colleagues had previously inserted part of the telomerase gene into so-called killer T-cells – immune cells that fight infections including HIV – and found that the cells had stronger anti-viral activity than normal. However, such gene therapy is not a practical way of treating the millions of people infected with HIV.