Anti-ageing breakthrough: Reprogramming cells could extend lifespan, say scientists

Fountain of youth might not be a real thing, but you still might be able to stay young for a considerably longer period! In a major breakthrough, scientists claim to have reversed the natural ageing process in living species using cellular reprogramming. They tested this technique on mice and watched them live 30 percent longer than other control animals.

What’s The Magic?

This reversal uses induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) which allow the scientists to reprogram skin cells to a basic embryonic state. The entire process enables the iPSCs to develop into other types of cells in the body, which means that the researchers can also reprogram cells to even rejuvenate living creatures, along with winding back cells.

Researcher Pradeep Reddy from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies said,

“In other studies scientists have completely reprogrammed cells all the way back to a stem-cell-like state. But we show, for the first time, that by expressing these factors for a short duration, you can maintain the cell’s identity while reversing age-associated hallmarks.”

Making differentiated cells turn back into embryonic-like stem cells by the induction of four genes, known as the Yamanaka factors, was first developed by Japanese researcher Shinya Yamanaka in 2006.

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Changes in the nerve cells due to ageing Pic Credits: naturalsciencenews

What Does This Mumbo Jumbo Mean?

In layman terms, reprogramming of cells to embryonic-like state means making them younger. But this feat does not come without some dangerous complications. Research data from 2013 and 2014 on iPSCs experimentation was not very heartening, with the test subjects suffering from cancerous growths or organ failure leading to fatality due to cell losing its identity.

Epigenetics researcher Wolf Reik from the University of Cambridge in the UK talked about the technique,

“Obviously there is a logic to it. In iPS cells you reset the ageing clock and go back to zero. Going back to zero, to an embryonic state, is probably not what you want, so you ask: where do you want to go back to?”

This revelation led to the Salk researchers deviating from the expression of the Yamanaka factors, which works for up to three weeks and leads to pluripotency. Instead, they attempted partial reprogramming, inducing the genes for two to four days.

This technique allowed the cell to retain its differentiation, i.e. a liver cell will remain a liver cell, and not be wound back to being a stem cell, and in the process, it becomes a younger version of itself.

In theory, partial reprogramming removes epigenetic marks in our cells, which is the wear and tear in the genome due to environmental and external factors. These marks rack up over time and eventually lead to lesser cell efficiency and ageing.

One of the team member, Izpisua Belmonte, told The New York Times.

“At the end of life there are many marks and it is difficult for the cell to read them.”

Is It Really Going To Work?

While this all is a hypothesis for now, the researchers’ experiments on mice give a sense of hope. For example mice with progeria, which is a rare genetic disease bringing about premature ageing, increased the life of animals undergoing partial reprogramming treatment to 24 weeks on average when compared to just 18 weeks for untreated mice.

The treated animals also got a health boost, along with the mice showing better cardiovascular and organ functions.

One of the team members, Paloma Martinez-Redondo, said in a press release.

“It is difficult to say specifically why the animal lives longer. But we know that the expression of these factors is inducing changes in the epigenome, and those are leading to benefits at the cellular and organismal level.”

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Impaired muscle repair in aged mice (left), treated mice (right). Credit: Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte Lab/Salk Institute

It should be noted that there is no way to determine that to what extent these results can be applied to humans, but the researchers are hopeful that this selective inducement of the Yamanaka factors might lead to greater life quality for people in the future.

Belmonte commented,

“Obviously, mice are not humans and we know it will be much more complex to rejuvenate a person. But this study shows that ageing is a very dynamic and plastic process, and therefore will be more amenable to therapeutic interventions than what we previously thought.”

While this technique might not be available for application in the very near future, the researchers say that aren’t too far away either.

Belmonte told The Guardian,

“These chemicals could be administrated in creams or injections to rejuvenate skin, muscle, or bones. We think these chemical approaches might be in human clinical trials in the next 10 years.”

The research findings are reported in Cell.

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