Researchers from the Babraham Institute in Cambridge in the UK have revealed a new method that can significantly reverse aging.
According to the research team, this new technique can “time jump” skin cells by about 30 years. The number of years is significantly longer than previous reprogramming techniques had achieved.
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The results of this study have the potential to transform regenerative medicine, which aims to repair or replace old or worn out cells. They could promote a more targeted approach to anti-aging.
The research has been published in eLife, a peer-reviewed biomedical and life science journal.
Stem cells are at the heart of regenerative medicine, sometimes also called stem cell therapy. They help repair or replace injured, dysfunctional, or diseased cells or tissues. They can transform into any specialized cells.
Regenerative medicine researchers have also been exploring for years how to reserve the process, that is, to convert specialized cells into stem cells. They have developed ways to create what are called “induced” stem cells, key tools in regenerative biology.
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Although useful for many things, stem cells can also cause problems. They could, for example, lead to cancers by multiplication of wild cells. It is therefore valuable to be able to reprogram the induced stem cells towards the specialized cells from which they originate.
However, scientists have found it difficult to re-differentiate stem cells into specialized cells. The new method of the current study helps to overcome the existing challenge.
The technique, resulting from the work of Professor Shinya Yamanaka, does not completely eliminate cell identity. It stops halfway through the reprogramming process. This allowed the cells to rejuvenate and regain their youthful function.
Yamanaka, who received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2012, discovered in 2007 a method to turn normal cells into unspecialized stem cells. The process involves four specific molecules known as Yamanaka factors and takes around 50 days.
On the other hand, this new technique called “transient reprogramming in the maturation phase” exposes the cells of the skin to these molecules for only 13 days. The cells temporarily lost their identity after that. However, the partially reprogrammed cells seemed to regain skin cell markers when they grew under usual conditions.
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Make cells look younger
The researchers looked at cell age measurements to confirm cell rejuvenation. They looked at both the epigenetic clock and the transcriptome. These measurements indicated that the reprogrammed cells were comparable to cells that were about 30 years younger.
However, it wasn’t just about looks. The cells also regained youthful function.
The rejuvenated fibroblasts (skin cells) produced more collagen protein, which structures tissues and helps heal wounds. Cells also moved faster in areas needing repair, compared to older cells. This indicates that they have the potential to be used to make cells that promote faster wound healing.
The scientists noted that the new technique produced an effect on other genes linked to age-related disorders and symptoms. For example, the APBA2 gene (linked to Alzheimer’s disease) and the MAF gene (associated with cataracts) showed changes in transcription levels in young people.
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Future research could therefore open up more curative possibilities, based on these findings.
“Our results represent a major step forward in our understanding of cellular reprogramming,” said study co-author and post-doctoral fellow Dr Diljeet Gill in Professor Wolf Reik’s lab. “We have proven that cells can be rejuvenated without losing their function and that rejuvenation seeks to restore certain functions of old cells. The fact that we also observed a reversal of aging indicators in disease-associated genes is particularly promising for the future of this work.
The research team next plans to try to understand the mechanism underlying successful cell reprogramming. This, the scientists hope, could help promote rejuvenation without the need for reprogramming but relying only on the underlying regulators.
Multi-omics rejuvenation of human cells by transient reprogramming in the maturation phase