The fountain of youth may be closer than you think. In a breakthrough study, researchers from Harvard Medical School have isolated a gene that appears to boost tissue repair and accelerate cell proliferation. The findings could revolutionize the treatment of a wide variety of injuries, cancers, and inflammatory diseases.

For centuries, biologists have wondered why an organism’s capacity for tissue repair and wound healing tends to decline as it gets older. The new study, which is published in the journal Cell, submits that this strange phenomenon may be the result of Lin28a – a gene whose protein product plays a crucial role in the early growth and development of a wide variety of animals. According to senior author George Daley, our gradual loss of regenerative powers may be symptomatic of a decline in Lin28a protein levels.

"It sounds like science fiction, but Lin28a could be part of a healing cocktail that gives adults the superior tissue repair seen in juvenile animals," he said in a press release.

To investigate the “fountain-of-youth” gene, the researchers reactivated it in adult mice. They found that the Lin28a protein accelerated the regeneration of cartilage, bone, and mesenchyme in a variety of injury models. Intriguingly, the gene also promoted faster regrowth of hair by stimulating anagen in the test subject’s hair follicles. Daley and his colleagues believe that Lin28a achieves these rejuvenating effects by stimulating metabolic processes otherwise associated with an organism’s embryo stage.

Study author Shyh-Chang Ng believes that the “fountain-of-youth” gene could be integrated into a number of different therapies. "We were surprised that what was previously believed to be a mundane cellular 'housekeeping' function would be so important for tissue repair," he told reporters. "One of our experiments showed that bypassing Lin28a and directly activating mitochondrial metabolism with a small-molecule compound also had the effect of enhancing wound healing, suggesting that it could be possible to use drugs to promote tissue repair in humans."

The current study is the latest in a growing series of inquiries into regeneration – a fascinating biological phenomenon that is observed across the entire evolutionary spectrum of organisms. Earlier this year, researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics showed that a single knocked-out gene allows planarian flatworms to regenerate their head and brain. A more recent study describes a so-called bio patch that promotes and sustains local bone growth in weakened and damaged areas. Like the current study, these research efforts remind us that when it comes to biotechnology and medicine, the line between science fiction and reality is not always clear.

Ng Shyh-Chang, Hao Zhu, T. Yvanka de Soysa, Gen Shinoda, Marc T. Seligson, Kaloyan M. Tsanov, Liem Nguyen, John M. Asara, Lewis C. Cantley, George Q. Daley.Lin28 Enhances Tissue Repair by Reprogramming Cellular Metabolism. Cell, 2013