Researchers from the Babraham Institute in Cambridge, United Kingdom have revealed a new method that can make it possible to reverse aging considerably.
This novel technique can “time jump” skin cells by around 30 years, according to the research team. The number of years is notably longer than what earlier reprogramming techniques had managed.
Findings from this study have the potential of transforming regenerative medicine, which aims to fix or replace old or worn-out cells. They could promote a more focused approach to fighting aging.
The research appeared in eLife, a peer-reviewed biomedical and life sciences journal.
Stem cells are at the core of regenerative medicine, which is also sometimes called stem cell therapy. They help in repairing or replacing injured, dysfunctional, or diseased cells or tissue. They can transform into any specialized cells.
Regenerative medicine researchers have also been exploring for years how to reserve the process – that is, converting specialized cells to stem cells. They have developed ways to create what are called “induced” stem cells, key tools in regenerative biology.
While helpful for many things, stem cells can also cause problems. They could, for instance, lead to cancers through wild cell multiplication. It is, therefore, valuable to be able to reprogram induced stem cells back to the specialized cells they are from.
However, scientists have found it difficult to re-differentiate stem cells back into specialized cells. The new method in the current study helps to overcome the existing challenge.
The technique, which derives from the work of Professor Shinya Yamanaka, does not totally get rid of cell identity. It stops halfway through the process of reprogramming. This, thus, enabled cells to become younger and regain their youthful function.
Yamanaka, who got the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, discovered in 2007 a method for turning normal cells into unspecialized stem cells. The process involves four specific molecules known as the Yamanaka factors and takes about 50 days to complete.
By contrast, this new technique referred to as “maturation phase transient reprogramming” exposes skin cells to those molecules for only 13 days. The cells temporarily lost their identity after that. However, the partly reprogrammed cells appeared to regain markers of skin cells when allowed to grow under usual conditions.
Making cells younger
Researchers examined measures of cellular age to confirm the rejuvenation of the cells. They looked at both the epigenetic clock and the transcriptome. Those measures indicated that the reprogrammed cells were comparable to cells that were around 30 years younger.
However, it was not just about appearance. The cells also regained youthful function.
Rejuvenated fibroblasts (skin cells) produced more collagen proteins, which provide structure to tissues and help to heal wounds. The cells also moved into areas in need of repair faster, compared to older cells. This indicates they have the potential of being used to make cells that promote more rapid wound healing.
The scientists noted that the new technique produced an effect on other genes connected to age-related disorders and symptoms. For instance, the APBA2 gene (linked to Alzheimer’s disease) and the MAF gene (associated with cataracts) displayed changes in youthful transcription levels.
Future research may, therefore, open up more curative possibilities, going by these findings.
“Our results represent a big step forward in our understanding of cell reprogramming,” said Dr. Diljeet Gill, study co-author and a postdoc in Professor Wolf Reik’s lab. “We have proved that cells can be rejuvenated without losing their function and that rejuvenation looks to restore some function to old cells. The fact that we also saw a reverse of ageing indicators in genes associated with diseases is particularly promising for the future of this work.”
The research team next plans to try and figure out the mechanism that underlies the successful cell reprogramming. This, scientists hope, could make it possible to promote rejuvenation without needing to reprogram but relying only on underlying regulators.