A team of scientists has just made a major breakthrough in medical research by partially reversing the aging process in both cells and live animals. The technique works by changing gene expression in a way that makes cells behave more like embryonic cells. The team’s method even slowed down a premature aging disease in laboratory mice. The details are in a paper that was just published in the journal Cell.
As modern medicine improves, people are living longer and are more likely to die from an age-related disease than a deadly infection. It seems impossible but if researchers could reverse the aging process, even slightly, the method could be used to improve quality of life or treat certain disorders. Scientists are currently able to induce mature cells to revert back to embryonic cells in a process called cellular reprogramming. By activating genes called Yamanaka factors, researchers can take any cell and convert it back into a pluripotent stem cell, which is capable of developing into any kind of cell. Yamanaka factors could be used to make cells “younger” but there are two major concerns. First, the rapid proliferation of these new embryonic cells could lead to cancer-like problems. Second, organ failure is a risk if too many mature cells revert back to their embryonic precursors. Scientists from the Salk Institute investigated whether turning Yamanaka factors on temporarily could achieve anti-aging effects without causing these types of problems.
The team induced Yamanaka factors for a short period of time in mice that had a genetic disease called progeria. Progeria, which also affects humans, causes patients to age rapidly and die at a young age. There is currently no cure. After first testing their anti-aging method on mouse skin cells, the team induced Yamanaka factors in live adult mice with progeria. Amazingly, the mice not only appeared younger but their organs and cardiovascular systems began to function better. They lived 30% longer than untreated mice and none of the experimental mice developed cancer. Their cells appeared younger—the researchers’ method had literally reversed aging processes. The team achieved similar results with healthy but aging mice; organs functioned better and the animals healed faster from injuries. While this is exciting news, the team cautions that human trials are still far off.
Researchers were able to reverse aging processes in both cells and live mice. Their technique could be used to treat a number of aging disorders, including progeria. The team’s method could, in the future, be used to simply “rejuvenate” someone who is developing age-related medical problems. Although the treatment worked on live mice, it’s unknown if humans will react the same way.
Ocampo et al. In vivo amelioration of age-associated hallmarks by partial reprogramming. Cell (2016).