Turning off the aging clock is an advancement in medical science humanity has worked on for decades. We’ve seen billions of dollars being invested by entrepreneurs like Bill Gates into cell rejuvenation technology that could reverse a person’s age; now, it seems the world is getting very close to unearthing that is needed for humans to live a healthy and everlasting life.
In this article, we take a look at the work done by researchers at the Babraham Institute. The research conducted under the Institute’s Epigenetics program has seen a breakthrough in its attempt to rejuvenate old cells and restore their functions.
Although the science of rejuvenation is fairly still in its early stages, the research recently published in the journal eLife shows a progressive growth in our use and understanding of regenerative medicine.
Taking the human age back by 30-Years
The first significant breakthrough in cell rejuvenation came in 2007 when Shinya Yamanaka found a way to transform normal cells into stem cells (stem cells are cells without any specialty). As expected, a practical execution wasn’t easy as the full process of stem cell reprogramming requires 50 days. While that’s the case, the key to the successful process involved four molecules known as Yamanaka factors.
This new method discovered by researchers at the institute also takes some key components of the research done by Shinya Yamanaka. Apparently, the Nobel Prize-winning technique is proving to have multiple areas of application as expected. At any rate, the focus of this research was to devise a method to achieve a balance between reprogramming cells, reducing their biological age, and making sure each cell retains its specialized function.
To make this happen, the researchers exposed skin cells to the Yamanaka factors for 13 days, such that they temporarily lost their identity (became stem cells), and marks from aging were removed. Afterward, the partial-stem cells were allowed to recover their identity. To verify the procedure’s success, Genome analysis was used to check the characteristics of the now reversed skin cells. The entire exercise is termed ‘Maturation Phase Transient Reprogramming.’
Aging as a molecular phenomenon
Cells show signs of aging on a molecular scale through markings; as we age, the C molecules in our DNA get methylated, thus physically represented by markings in the cell. To prove if any rejuvenation technique works, the signs of aging (methylated C molecules and markings on the cell) must be absent.
Dr. Diljeet Gill, who led the research team as a Ph.D. student in Wolf Reik’s lab, says, “Our understanding of aging on a molecular level has progressed over the last decade, giving rise to techniques that allow researchers to measure age-related biological changes in human cells. We were able to apply this to our experiment to determine the extent of reprogramming our new method achieved.”
For the study, the researchers evaluated the ages of cells with two methods; the chemical marking in the genome and the transcriptome produced by the cells. With these methods, they discovered that the age profile of the cells was 30 years younger than before the experiment was conducted.
While that may true, the overall success of the findings depends on if the younger cells were as active as we’d expect from naturally young cells. A key component for healing wounds and fixing tissues called ‘fibroblasts‘ were observed to be more active in the reprogrammed cells than those that didn’t undergo the process. According to the research, the institute also published that the reprogrammed cells produced more collagen proteins than the others that weren’t used in the experiment. Also, the presence of fibroblasts was confirmed through a cut in the cells, and the accelerated rate of healing the wounds proved to be something for further study going forward.
Future possibilities if we continue to study cell rejuvenation
It should be stressed that we’re not quite there yet; there’s more to explore in the mechanism behind a successful transient reprogramming experiment. There are still some speculations that genomes might have escaped during the exposure to the Yamanaka factors; thus, all of the cells may permanently lose their identity.
According to Diljeet, the result is a big step towards understanding cell reprogramming. There is proof that cell rejuvenation is possible without the cells completely losing their functions. Also, the rejuvenation process can serve as a method to restore some functions in old cells.
At any rate, this study is expected to pioneer further research into therapeutic methods of treating other age-related illnesses like Alzheimer’s disease and cataracts. Genes like the APBA2 and MAF will have the possibility of being reprogrammed to youthful levels once again.