What if the key to reversing the disease of aging was already in your body and it took a simple reset to start turning the clock backwards?
According to a new study published in Cell, it might be possible!
AGING AND THE EPIGENOME
Many scientists have always thought that aging was caused by genetic mutations in DNA that disrupt how cells work. But when you look at cells in the elderly, they’re not mutated. And people and animals who do have cellular mutations don’t age faster than anyone else.
Dr. David Sinclair and his team at Harvard Medical School are taking a different approach when studying the disease. Sinclair has always hypothesized that aging is the result of problems with the epigenome.
What’s the epigenome? All of our cells start as stem cells. Epigenetics provides instructions for each stem cell to transform into a cell that has a “job.” The epigenome is how our bodies have different types of cells like skin cells, heart cells, and all of the rest.
Dr. Sinclair tested his hypothesis that aging is a result of epigenetic instructions that have gone bad and that it can be reversed if the epigenome is reset. He has compared it to software that sometimes gets glitchy. When you reboot, the software resets itself and starts working normally again.
STUDY DONE ON MICE
The Harvard team developed a way to reboot cells in order to restart the epigenetic instructions. In order to do this, they disrupted the DNA of the young mice, causing them to age faster. The mice showed typical aging signs like gray fur, less activity, and frailty.
The researchers did the reset by using 3 genes that instruct cells to reprogram themselves. These cells came from stem cells called the Yamanaka stem cell factors, four genes that were discovered to turn back the clock on adult cells to the point they returned to the stem cell state and could be redeveloped again.
Sinclair didn’t need to erase the cells’ entire history, he only wanted it to reboot just enough to reset the epigenetic instructions. Using three of the four Yamanaka stem cell factors, they were able to reverse aging by 57%, which was enough to make the mice youthful again. The team has tested many kinds of cells and they’ve all responded the same way.
They did a similar study in 2020 that only focused on eyes. They were able to restore vision in older mice but these new results show it may work body wide.
WILL THIS WORK IN HUMANS?
Dr. Sinclair’s team is already testing this on non-human primates. They’ve figured out how to turn the clock on and off using the antibiotic doxycycline. Giving it reverses the clock and when the drug is stopped, the animals begin to age again. They are also lab testing on human skin cells and neurons.
There are a lot of applications if these studies are successful. It’s possible that age related diseases such as heart disease can be cured and even prevented. Sinclair has said that when he gets the chance to test on humans, he hopes to recreate the 2020 study he did on eyes because the gene therapy can be injected there directly. Most people have the existing nerves in the eyes, but need to reset the epigenetic instructions in order to fix their vision.
This study is just the first step in redefining what it means to age. There are still a lot of questions, but in the future, the lines between old and young may be blurred. We might look at someone who has had a lot of birthdays as someone who just needs their genes reset to continue leading a healthy life. This obviously has the potential for creating revolutionary medicines.