Turning Back the Clock to Reverse Signs of Aging
Graying hair, crow’s feet, an injury that’s taking longer to heal than when we were 20 — faced with the unmistakable signs of aging, most of us have had a least one fantasy of turning back time. Now, scientists at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California have found that intermittent expression of genes normally associated with an embryonic state can reverse the hallmarks of old age.
A release from the institute explains that this approach, which not only prompted human skin cells in a dish to look and behave young again, also resulted in the rejuvenation of mice with a premature aging disease, countering signs of aging and increasing the animals’ lifespan by 30 percent. The early-stage work provides insight both into the cellular drivers of aging and possible therapeutic approaches for improving human health and longevity.
The release quotes Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, a professor in Salk’s Gene Expression Laboratory and senior author of the paper appearing in the December 15, 2016 issue of Cell, as saying, “Our study shows that aging may not have to proceed in one single direction. It has plasticity and, with careful modulation, aging might be reversed.”
As people in modern societies live longer, their risk of developing age-related diseases goes up. In fact, data shows that the biggest risk factor for heart disease, cancer and neurodegenerative disorders is simply age. One clue to halting or reversing aging lies in the study of cellular reprogramming, a process in which the expression of four genes known as the Yamanaka factors allows scientists to convert any cell into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). Like embryonic stem calls, iPSCs are capable of dividing indefinitely and becoming any cell type present in our body.
“What we and other stem-cell labs have observed is that when you induce cellular reprogramming, cells look younger,” says Alejandro Ocampo, a research associate and first author of the paper. “The next question was whether we could induce this rejuvenation process in a live animal.”
While cellular rejuvenation certainly sounds desirable, a process that works for laboratory cells is not necessarily a good idea for an entire organism. For one thing, although rapid cell division is critical in growing embryos, in adults such growth is one of the hallmarks of cancer. For another, having large numbers of cells revert back to embryonic status in an adult could result in organ failure, ultimately leading to death. For these reasons, the Salk team wondered whether they could avoid cancer and improve aging characteristics by inducing the Yamanaka factors for a short period of time.