Researchers may have discovered the cause – and solution – to aging
Japanese researchers may have made a breakthrough discovery regarding how cells age. If they are correct, that could also lead to a way to stop that process.
You probably shouldn’t go cancelling your plans for retirement just yet, but the research is encouraging and at the very least may help us to better understand how and why we age.
That in itself could lead to several treatments for a variety of medical issues. Or it could turn back the again process entirely.
That might seem like the stuff of B-grade 1950s sci-fi, but the science is promising.
How cells age
According to researchers at Japan’s University of Tsukuba, the key is in understanding how cells age. The most prevalent explanation at the moment is known as the mitochondrial theory. Most species – including humans – show abnormal mitochondria as they age, although how they change is the question.
Mitochondria are the powerhouses of the cell, producing energy that in turn leads to cellular respiration. When the mitochondrial DNA is damaged, that leads to mutations in the DNA sequence. These changes are associated with a shorter lifespans, as well as the onset of characteristics related to aging – including hair loss, curvature of the spine, and osteoporosis.
The more time passes, the more mutations affect the DNA, which in turn causes those cells to be less effective and deteriorate. At least, that’s the theory.
Researchers at the University of Tsukuba in Japan have produced evidence indicating a different theory though, known as the epigenetic theory.
The epigenetic theory states that the aging process is not related to the mutations in the mitochondrial DNA, but rather another type of genetic regulation. In a paper recently published in Nature’s Scientific Reports, the team explains that it looked at mitochondria in human fibroblast cell lines, the most common connective tissue in animals (including humans). The research focused on samples from two human groups, one that ranged in age from a fetus to 12 years old, and the other that ranged in age from 80-97.
In both groups, the team looked for mitochondrial DNA damage. If the mitochondrial theory is correct, there should be a correlation to the amount of DNA damage in the elder group and decreased cellular respiration. Instead, the team found roughly the same amount of DNA damage in both the older group and the young.
The team then began looking at different forms of genetic regulation. This included epigenetic regulation, which refers to changes that alter the physical structure of DNA. This could be caused by the addition of chemical structures or proteins, which can turn a gene on or off. These changes don’t, however, affect the DNA sequence itself.
A new theory
Using that theory as a starting point, the team then began to reprogram human fibroblast cell lines from both the young and elderly groups. The researchers reset the cells to an embryonic stem cell-like state, then studied the results.
The results of the test are enough to potentially open up a new, and possibly groundbreaking avenue of research.
The test cells showed a complete reversal in all age-related defects, regardless of age or amount of defects. This seems to possibly confirm the epigenetic theory, but there is a whole lot of testing still to come.
To build on this discovery, the Japanese research team began to look for and target genes that are known to be regulated epigenetically. The team found narrowed in on two genes, both of which regulate glycine production in mitochondria. The researchers then began to regulate the glycine production in these cells, and found that they could induce defects, or restore mitochondrial function in the fibroblast cell lines.
In one test using a 97-year old fibroblast cell line, the team managed to restore the cell’s respiratory function by adding glycine for 10 days. In other words, the team may have uncovered a way to reverse the aging process, or at least the defects in elderly humans.
Although the research is both eye opening and potentially incredible, there is a lot of testing that still need to occur. While the initial tests show that this form of treatment can help to combat the effects of age-related defects related to respiration issues, the real question is whether or not it can stop, or even reverse the aging process.
That might seem far-fetched, but there is a real possibility. At the very least, this should lead to a new field of treatments for age-related illnesses and disorders.