Researchers have developed technology to reverse the ageing of cells.The breakthrough came as a surprise to researchers who were investigating a cure for progeria, a genetic disorder that causes children to age rapidly and die before they reach their late teens.
Experts insist the findings could transform our understanding of – and approach towards – treatment of ageing. Lead investigator, Dr. John Cooke, department chair of cardiovascular sciences at Houston Methodist Research Institute, United States (US), said it was like night and day.
“We looked at many cellular markers of ageing 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 ageing,” he said.
“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.”
They focused on progeria since the disease can offer insight into the way all human cells age, but on an accelerated basis.“These kids are dying of heart attack and stroke at 13, 14, 15 years old,” Cooke said.
“Although current therapies are useful, they only add a year or two, on average, to the child’s life. “We wanted to do something that would improve the children’s quality of life and potentially allow them to live longer, so we set about studying their cells and seeing if we could improve the cell function.”
Cooke and his team focused on telomeres, the timekeepers of cells, which are crucial for the function of our chromosomes. They are the caps, which sit at the end of each chromosome, holding it together. As we get older, the telomere wears down and gets shorter, ticking off the time we have left.
The researchers saw the telomeres were shorter in children with progeria.It made them wonder if, by restoring the telomere length, they could improve the cell function and its ability to divide and respond to stress.
To do this, the researchers used a technology called RNA therapeutics. They delivered RNA to the cells that triggers the production of a protein called telomerase.
This gave the cells the information they needed to extend the telomere and let the cells do the rest. Now, Cooke said, he wants to see this approach turned into something useful and says they’re going to do it quicker than expected within a few years.
The study is one of the first to look at how to reverse the ageing of cells in progeria, rather than looking at how gene mutations caused the disease in the first place.