The notion of the "elixir of life" has tantalized the fantasies of many with its charms of undying youth and promises of endless passion. Spanish scientists have identified the enzyme telomerase which, they think, is an essential ingredient of this elixir and could unlock the secrets of the magic potion.
According to researchers, boosting the amount of telomerase in the body could prevent cells from dying and so lead to extended and healthier lifespans.
Telomerase, extracted from the Astragalus plant, is often used in Chinese medicines with no known adverse effects.
It protects tiny bundles of DNA at the end of our chromosomes that get shorter and shorter as our cells divide. Eventually, they get so short that the cells die.
To reach the conclusion, the team at the Spanish National Cancer Centre in Madrid tested the theory on mice and found that those genetically engineered to produce 10 times the normal levels of telomerase lived 50 per cent longer than normal, reports the Telegraph.
Maria Blasco, who led the research, told the New Scientist said that the enzyme was capable of turning "a normal, mortal cell into an immortal cell".
She added that she was optimistic that a similar approach may eventually lead to extended human lifespans.
"You can delay the ageing of mice and increase their lifespan. I think it is very hard to extrapolate data from mouse ageing to human ageing," she said.
However, some safety concerns remain, because cancer cells produce telomerase at higher than normal rates.
Blasco said this could be overcome by also issuing cancer drugs that could offset the negative affects.