While the Fountain of Youth is the stuff of legend, the search for a way to stop humans from aging is happening as we speak—inside the laboratory.
In a study published in the journal eLife on April 8, scientists at Babraham Institute in the U.K. managed to de-age the skin cells of a 53-year-old woman by 30 years in a petri dish. Looking at age-related biological changes in the DNA, these genetically-modified younger cells appeared and behaved as any 23-year-old skin cell should. Notably, the team was also able to de-age the cells in less than two weeks.
The techniques used in this experiment have been around for the last few decades. However, with the woman’s skin cells, the researchers managed to shave off time from the usually long process while also avoiding the problems reprogrammed cells can often run into, like inadvertently turning cancerous.
“This kind of work is very important,” Dr. Ivona Percec, a plastic surgeon and stem cell researcher at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, who was not involved in the study, told The Daily Beast. “And it’s one that’s been sought out by many scientists in order to reverse or delay aging.”
Most rejuvenation or regeneration research makes use of human stem cells, which have the unique ability to develop into any other type of cell our body needs, such as muscle and brain cells. Stem cells can also renew themselves over time and serve as an internal repair system, replacing lost or damaged cells during a person’s lifetime. But stem cells are quite difficult to produce in the lab—and are often rejected by the body when used in different types of therapies.
To get around these hurdles, scientists have been creating their own lab-grown stem cells called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). They are created by taking any cell in our body and genetically editing it to resemble an embryonic stem cell, George Sen, a molecular biologist at the University of California San Diego who was not involved in the study, told The Daily Beast in an email.
To make their iPSCs, the Babraham researchers reversed the cellular clock on their 53-year-old skin cells by bathing them in a chemical solution that encourages the growth of proteins that reshape a cell’s DNA. To control how far they de-age the cells, the researchers allowed the bath to run for a little less than two weeks than the typical 50 days. Then they assessed the age of the skin cells by looking for age-related biological changes.
“I remember the day I got the results back and I didn’t quite believe that some of the cells were 30 years younger than they were supposed to be,” Dilgeet Gill, a biomedical researcher at Babraham Institute and lead author of the study, told the BBC. “It was a very exciting day!”
These newly minted young skin cells, called fibroblasts, produce collagen, which is a protein responsible for healthy joints and elastic skin throughout the body. When researchers cut through the cell layer (like how if you injure your skin), the fibroblasts moved into the gash quickly to fill it, unlike the older cells.
Though the findings are quite encouraging, we’re still some ways from seeing this new de-aging technique used in a clinical setting. Experts also have some lingering questions regarding how long exactly this rejuvenation lasts and whether the new technique actually improves a cell’s lifespan.
“The authors only looked for a short period of time after [applying Yamanaka factors] but what happens once the cell has divided a few times? Does the molecular clock catch up?” asked Sen. “The authors also never tested whether the ‘de-aged’ fibroblasts behaved as younger fibroblasts in live animal models. This question would need to be addressed before this can be used as therapy.”
“Whether this is the key to the ‘Fountain of Youth’ remains to be seen.”
— Dr. Johann Gudjonsson, University of Michigan
Dr. Johann Gudjonsson, a dermatologist who studies inflammatory skin conditions at The University of Michigan and wasn’t involved in the study, is also skeptical of the experiment.
“Whether this is the key to the ‘Fountain of Youth’ remains to be seen,” Gudjonsson told The Daily Beast in an email. He explained that telomeres, which are the caps binding the ends of DNA and shorten as we age, didn’t appear to improve with the new study’s treatment. “Therefore while the function and state of the cells are rejuvenated it may not mean that their ‘lifespan’ has changed,” he said.
Even if longevity and immediate clinical applications aren’t in the cards, this new study does offer an interesting proof of concept for future medical research and potentially combating aging.
“If this process can be applied to other cell types, one can imagine rejuvenating that particular cell type and using it to restore an aged/failing organ,” said Sen. “I believe this line of research has a lot of potential and we are just starting to understand the rules of how to reprogram cells.”
Source: Culled From The Daily Beast.