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Battling Nature (Part 1): Genetic Possibilities

On the Genetic Frontier

Information Johnson is collecting from research could potentially help increase the human lifespan. Johnson recently set up a company, Denver-based GenoPlex, that will try to develop drugs to interfere with the aging process on the genetic level.

"It's impossible to predict what can happen," he said. But "there's no formal reason why we couldn't manipulate genes... in humans using drug approaches that would disrupt genes in the same way."

Manipulating genes may be the way to go, agreed Helen Blau, professor and chairman of molecular pharmacology at Stanford University School of Medicine. She and her team of researchers have been developing genetically engineered muscle cells, which could stimulate the body to produce blood vessels. Reinvigorated blood vessels could prevent the development of heart disease and poor circulation, as well as delay the muscle atrophy and the difficulties in wound healing that afflict older people.

So far, the genetically engineered cells have been successful at stimulating blood-vessel growth in mice, Blau said. With this success, she will begin clinical trials in the near future to see if the cells can cause blood vessels to grow in people.

However, like most scientists, Blau insists the anti-aging therapies aren't going to happen today. Instead, she said that while scientists now know so much about the genetics of aging, actual genetic therapies are a thing of the future.

"It's tremendously exciting," Blau said. "But it's not ready for prime time yet."

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