KOMPAS.com – Forget expensive lotions and potions – the key to becoming immortal could be found in flatworms, scientists say. The worms, which live in lakes and ponds, hold the remarkable ability to regenerate time and time again – effectively living forever.

If one is cut in half, the head portion grows a tail and the tail portion grows a head. Cut it into 20 pieces and 20 new worms, each an exact copy of the first, are created.

This has been exploited by Nottingham University scientists who have created a colony of more than 20,000 worms, all from one original, whose bodies and organs do not appear to age.

They are confident a single worm which did not divide would live forever – unless it catches an infection or another illness. Researcher Dr Aziz Aboobaker said: ‘In my opinion, they are immortal.’

It is hoped that the research will help develop treatments that allow humans to stay fit and healthy long into old age. The experiments focused on Schmidtea mediterranea, a relative of an African parasite which can be found under stones and rocks in British ponds.

The flatworm has a simple brain – or concentration of nerve cells – in its head, which can be regenerated by stem cells found elsewhere in the body. In contrast, an earthworm would die if cut in two.

One strain of Schmidtea mediterranea reproduces without sex, simply by splitting itself in half and creating two copies, growing new muscles, skin, guts and even an entire brain in the process.

To speed up nature, the scientists cut the worms with a razor blade. Dr Aboobaker said: ‘You take one and wait until it is seven to ten days old and you cut it. The tail grows into a new head and the head grows into a new tail. A big one can be cut into ten to 20 pieces.’

By doing this for four years, they have generated around 20,000 copies of one original worm. The longest survived around a year before succumbing to infection. Most worms live just a few days.

Key to the flatworms’ immortality are telomeres – tiny biological clocks that cap the ends of chromosomes. Normally, they get shorter with time, stopping cells from dividing and renewing and causing the body to age.

But in the flatworm, the telomeres stay intact, allowing cells to divide many times and stopping ageing in its tracks. Dr Aboobaker and colleague Dr Thomas Tan have pinpointed the gene that allows them to do this, the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reports.

The researchers said: ‘The next goals for us are to understand the mechanisms in more detail and understand more about how you evolve an immortal animal.’

Knowing more about how the worms safely do this could help stem cell scientists achieve their Holy Grail – the growth of new hearts, livers or brain cells in a dish. It could also speed the development of drugs that stave off many of the diseases of old age.

Douglas Kell, of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, which part-funded the study, said: ‘This research contributes to our fundamental understanding of some of the processes involved in ageing and build strong foundations for improving health and potentially longevity in other organisms, including humans.’