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Harvard researchers find protein that could reverse the aging process


May 7, 2014

A protein that's more abundant in young mice appears to reverse the aging process in older animals (Photo: Rama)

A protein that's more abundant in young mice appears to reverse the aging process in older animals (Photo: Rama)

Researchers from the Harvard Stem Cell Institute (HSCI) have shown that injections of a protein dubbed GDF11, when administered to older mice, appear to cause a reversal of many signs of aging. Analysis showed that every major organ system tested displayed signs of improvement, with the protein even appearing to reverse some of the DNA damage which is synonymous with the aging process itself.

The protein GDF11 is found in humans as well as mice, and is now being considered for possible human testing due to its surprising and apparently regenerative properties.

A previous study had focused on examining the hearts of mice the equivalent of 70 human years old. The mice were regularly exposed to the blood of younger mice whose blood carried a higher concentration of GDF11. Ordinarily the hearts of older mice are enlarged and weakened, however results from the previous study displayed that, thanks to the GDF11 protein present in the blood of the younger mice, the hearts of the elderly mice reduced in size, making them appear younger and healthier. The changes were not purely aesthetic however, with the mice displaying an increased ability to exercise for prolonged periods of time.

The most recent set of experiments tested the protein in two ways. The first stage of the testing involved linking the circulatory systems of an older and a younger mouse through what is known as a parabiotic system. This allowed the protein-rich blood from the younger mouse to flow through the elder's system continuously, maximizing the effect of the protein. The second method involved injecting the older mice with a concentrated dose of GDF11.

Results from the second study showed that the protein had positive effects reaching far beyond the heart. It was found that, having been exposed to increased levels of the protein, all organs examined by the researchers displayed a heightened level of function. Furthermore, whilst previous studies on the protein had focused on regenerating damaged muscle in mice, the most recent study focused on the repair of cells damaged by the aging process. The GDF11 protein was found to reverse some of this damage, allowing muscle to function as effectively as that of a much younger mouse.

Analysis of the brains of the older mice via MRI imaging displayed an increase in neural stem cells along with the development of blood cells in the brain. “There seems to be little question that, at least in animals, GDF11 has an amazing capacity to restore aging muscle and brain function,” states Dr. Doug Melton, co-chair of HSCI. The team believes that due to the increased blood flow exhibited in the brain of the elderly mice, it may be possible to reverse some of the cognitive effects of aging. The protein was also found to improve the olfactory system of older mice, greatly heightening their sense of smell.

In terms of human applications, it is hoped that a drug derived from GDF11 will lead to a cure for conditions such as diastolic heart failure. This condition is a defect which eventually causes one or more of the ventricles of the heart to deteriorate while attempting to fill the heart with blood, in order to pump it around the body. There is also a possibility that a GDF11-inspired drug could be used to combat Alzheimer's, a condition synonymous with the aging process.

Looking to the future, the team will continue studies of the GDF11 protein, with a view to begin human medical trials within three to five years.

The research papers regarding the discoveries surrounding GDF11 are available in the journal Science.

Source: Harvard University

About the Author
Anthony Wood Anthony is a recent law school graduate who also has a degree in Ancient History, for some reason or another. Residing in the UK, Anthony has had a passion about anything space orientated from a young age and finds it baffling that we have yet to colonize the moon. When not writing he can be found watching American football and growing out his magnificent beard. All articles by Anthony Wood

How very slowwwwwww... This is clearly the answer to longevity in general. The shrunken heads behind this article need a shot of GDF11.

Art Toegemann

" The first stage of the testing involved linking the circulatory systems of an older and a younger mouse through what is known as a parabiotic system. This allowed the protein-rich blood from the younger mouse to flow through the elder's system continuously, maximizing the effect of the protein. "

Who would ever have thought Countess Bathory got it right?

Bob Ehresman

Inspired by Dr. Melton's work will humans in the future transfuse themselves with artificial young blood? But what will happen when supplies runs out and they are unable to break their habit? uh oh... are vampires gonna be a real thing now?

Adorable pumpkin

The sooner this gets approved and mass-produced the better! With whole-blood and plasma transfusions legal virtually world-wide already, unless some greedy swine manages to patent the idea, it should not need a long testing procedure. Hopefully the cost factor can be controlled and the demand for blood donors will not get out of hand as the rich try to buy up supply. I think I will start a 'cult' with a following of 50 or so young accolytes donating me a pint a week to keep their aging guru alive. Unless very marked rejuvenation occurs, I would not need only female virgins.

The Skud

I like that it wasn't just the direct transfusions that worked. Being able to concentrate the GDF11 out of the blood would allow a less risky proceedure. I'm not clear from the reading, but if it's plasma derived and not whole blood then it could also speed things up at collections. You can donate plasma much more frequently than whole blood.


I am 70. So if I can hold together for 10 more years something may be available to rejuvenate my aged body and mind. If course I am sure my income would have to jump by $500K per year to afford whatever results from the effort. And hopefully obummercare will allow people to live past 60 (a bit of Logans Run humor, although not that funny at 70).

Glenn McGinnis

How is this protein extracted from blood? Is the protein age related or does everyone with healthy blood carry it? If all healthy blood contains GDF11 then hospitals could start harvesting it from suitable volunteer patients. How much is required to show positive results? Could an individual become his own donor and stock pile the protein? Is the protein from animals compatible with humans? Etcetra..... More questions than answers stem from the above article.



A lot of your questions are not that good, unfortunately. Some of your questions are answered in the article if you had carefully read it. Protein extraction happens in a lab and in multiple, detailed steps. It would not be interesting for your average Gizmag reader to read. Nobody stockpiles his own blood, so you can expect the same for the protein. A protein is a protein, if it's the same building blocks and structure, it does not even matter which animal it comes from. A smart person would not harvest this from the already cumbersome enough process of blood harvesting.

No, you would do it the pharmeucetical way. You would use recombinant DNA technology and expression vectors.

Fretting Freddy the Ferret pressing the Fret

Great, now people will live longer but not still produce just as many babies and instead of the Earth topping out at ten billion it will go to twelve, and that Earth will be a living hell.

Nelson Chick

Proving vampires were right all along.


Uh, Nelson...given a modicum of education and reasonable access to contraception and abortion, populations in most urban areas are facing diminishing populations.

Incomers and migrants may sometimes swell their ranks; but, in general, birth control as a choice actually works.

Sort out your fundamentalist politicians is all you need.


If this treatment really works in humans as well as we all hope, then I expect the next step will be to bioengineer a strain of bacteria to produce the GDF11 in large quantities and cheaply as is now done with insulin. There will be no need to extract large volumes of blood from young people for this purpose.


You can all ready purchase the GDF11 protein on line from R&D Systems and Products. No price given, requests for the price. Wish I was rich? They have better lives, mostly, better things and now if they choose, they can live longer. However… WHY? Mostly… very old healthy people don't have interesting lives anyway. Many other things like genetic disorders, eyes, hearing, the many forms of cancer, all the knocks and falls from early in ones life, bone density and in men, very low testosterone with age, lack of energy and or a zest for life can make it all very dull. How old is old? This is all very early in the lab, really… but man, what promise this holds:)

Paul Perkins

When and where do I get GDF? I want to look like a --young-- movie star!


Does this have any chance of doing something simple like cure Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis? A lung disease with no cause, no cure and very few treatment options. Most die within 3-5 years of diagnosis. 40,000 people die of IPF the same number as die of breast cancer each year, but IPF only raises about $6 million per year whereas breast cancer raises $120 million per year for research. That does not include funds raised for other cancers.

What good does it do to be able to live a long time when diseases make certain you do not?

Layne Nelson

I just reread my comment from May 8th. I apologize for the "shrunken heads" remark; it made no sense. I am all for this development and have no desire to insult the many good people creating it. Apparently, I became impatient during this profound transition in human life. Once again, I apologize.

Art Toegemann

This information is quite heartening especially for women who dont want to get all those wrinkles and look old. I am surer the this is not going to increase the age of human beings as Nelson fears it; it is just going to advance old age. Companies like Revitol and Dermology are going to invest quite a fortune to make this a success.

Lisa Hill
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