Having the ability to reverse ageing seems more like a miracle than a medical possibility, but now a team of scientists claim to have been able to “dramatically” reverse cell ageing in a world first study.
The team were looking at a group affected by cellular-level ageing more than most of the population - children who suffer with progeria, a disease which means they age too quickly and normally die in their early teens.
Current progeria therapies only add a year or two to a child’s predicted lifespan because age-related diseases such as heart disease and stroke are normally deadly for them by fourteen or fifteen-years-old.
The researchers from the Houston Methodist Research Institute wanted to see if they could rejuvenate youthful cells in these children, improving their ability to cell divide and respond to stress.
They wanted to do this by moderating timekeeping proteins on chromosomes, known as telomeres. Found at the tip of each human chromosome in our body, telomeres are responsible for holding the chromosome together.
As we get older this telomere gradually erodes, “ticking off the time” we have left as it gets shorter. And (as you would expect) children affected by progeria have much shorter telomeres at a much younger age.
The team speculated that if they were able to re-extend and lengthen the telomere it would have the effect of forcing cells to turn back time, and exhibit more youthful qualities again.
By delivering RNA to the cells that encode this protein, they were able to do just this, and much quicker than they had anticipated.
In fact, it only took a few days to have a “substantial” and meaningful effect on the lifespan and function of the cells.
John Cooke, who worked on the paper, said: “We were not expecting to see such a dramatic effect on the ability of the cells to proliferate. They could function and divide more normally, and we gave them extra lifespan, as well as better function.”
And once this telomere was lengthened, it did have the desired effect.
Cooke said: “We looked at many cellular markers of aging and weren’t expecting to see such a dramatic effect on them. Our approach had a much greater effect on all the markers of cellular aging [than current therapies].
“We markedly improved the ability of cells to multiply and reversed the production of inflammatory proteins. Those markers of cell aging we looked at were all reversed with the treatment in our study.”
Cooke hopes that this type of therapy won’t just be useful for these children but would fix diseases that are caused by age, such as succumbing to heart attacks and strokes.
“We can at least stall or slow down accelerated aging, and that’s what we’re working toward,” he said. “Our next steps are to start moving this therapy toward clinical use. We plan to do so by improving existing cell therapies. I want to develop a therapy for these children.”