The signs of ageing can be ‘magically' reversed by a common chemical used to clean fish tanks, according to a new study.
Methylene blue, a non toxic, water soluble and inexpensive chemical, also used as an antidote to cyanide poisoning and as a dye, has been found to repair the damage to genes caused by ageing.
Researchers at the University of Maryland said it could soon be available as an over-the-counter medicine, used in cosmetics or as a food and drink additive.
The study found the chemical repaired the damage to mitochondria – the ‘batteries' that produce energy in cells – which are degraded by the normal ageing process.
Ageing causes older mitochondria to resemble the mitochondria in the rare genetic illness progeria, which causes premature ageing in one in four million children.
Progeria typically appear within the first year and those with the disease develop thin, wrinkled skin, fragile bones and joints, full-body hair loss and organ failure.
Most do not survive past their teens.
The new study showed for the first time that small doses of methylene blue can almost completely repair defects in cells afflicted with progeria and can also repair age-related damage to healthy cells.
Associate professor of cell biology and molecular genetics Kan Cao said: “We tried very hard to examine the effect of methylene blue on all known progeria symptoms within the cell.
“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.”
Dr Zheng-Mei Xiong added: “This is such an exciting result with so much potential, both for progeria and normal ageing.
“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.”
Progeria results from a defect in a single gene which produces a protein called lamin A, which sits just inside the cell's nucleus, under the nuclear membrane.
Healthy cells snip off a small piece of each new lamin A molecule – a small edit that is necessary for lamin A to work properly.
Cells with progeria, however, skip this important editing step.
The defective lamin A interferes with the nuclear membrane, causing the nucleus to form bulges and deformations that make normal functioning impossible.
Cells with progeria also have misshapen and defective mitochondria, which are the small organelles that produce energy for the cell.
The study published in the journal Aging Cell found a majority of the mitochondria in progeria cells become swollen and fragmented, making it impossible for the defective mitochondria to function.
But methylene blue reversed the damages to both the nucleus and mitochondria in progeria cells remarkably well.
Although the he precise mechanism was still unclear, treating the cells with the chemical effectively improved every defect, causing progeria cells to be almost indistinguishable from normal cells.
Animal and then clinical trials are planned.