British researchers have developed a way to reverse the aging process of skin cells, by turning the biological clock back by around 30 years.
Cell aging has become increasingly common over the past decade, with researchers reprogramming several mouse, rat and human cell types. But never before have cells been aged so many years and retained their specific type and function.
The method, developed by Diljeet Gill, a postdoctoral fellow at the Babraham Institute in Cambridge, and his colleagues, was published on April 8 in the journal eLifeand has been dubbed “transient reprogramming of the maturation phase”.
The researchers applied this technique to fibroblasts (a common type of the skin cell) from three middle-aged donors – with an average age of around 50 – and then compared them to younger cells from donors aged 20 to 22. The researchers found that the middle-aged cells were similar to younger cells, both chemically and genetically. . When explored further, the team even noticed that the technique affected genes linked to age-related diseases, like Alzheimer’s disease and cataracts.
Additionally, Gill and his colleagues examined the behavior of fibroblasts to determine if they could also act like younger skin cells. When they injured a layer of cells, they found that the rejuvenated cells moved quickly to fill the gap, similar to how younger cells behave when wounds heal.
This study is not the first to age skin cells. This title goes to the Nobel laureate Shinya Yamanakawho genetically reprogrammed mouse skin cells and transformed them into so-called induced pluripotent cells stem cellsor iPSCs, in 2006. These iPSCs resemble cells in early development and have the potential to form any type of cell in the body.
Related: What are stem cells?
The new research is based in part on Yamanaka’s method, but there are key differences. Yamanaka’s method takes about 50 days and completely reprograms cells to the biological age of an embryo. Gill’s method takes only 13 days and only partially reprograms the cells so that they retain their identity (in this case, the identity of skin cells.).
Although the transformation of mature cells into stem cells is ideal for research, the complete reprogramming process is not ideal for therapeutics. Completely reprogrammed cells lose their identity and specialized cellular functions. And when implanted in the body, these fully reprogrammed cells can become cancerous.
In contrast, partially reprogrammed cells, such as skin cells in Gill’s research, become biologically younger and retain specialized cellular functions, although they may still potentially pose a cancer risk. “Our results represent a major step forward in our understanding of cellular reprogramming,” Gill said in a statement. “We have proven that cells can be rejuvenated without losing their function and that rejuvenation seeks to restore certain functions to old cells.”
Although their work shows great promise, Gill and his colleagues acknowledge that their paper is a proof-of-concept study. The authors said they don’t know how fibroblasts from younger or older individuals would react to the new reprogramming method, or whether cells from people of vastly different ages would still age 30 years.
Another problem is that Gill’s technique is still based on Yamanaka’s method. It is still unclear how the reprogrammed cells might behave inside a living organism or what risks they pose.
Ben Van Handel, a stem cell biologist and co-founder of skincare company Heraux and biopharmaceutical company CarthroniX, said the technique “will never be used in a clinical setting because it’s currently a type of gene therapy that would be impossible to use in humans.” There is still a lot of concern about these cells becoming cancerous and controlling how far back the rejuvenation process goes.
But that does not detract from the impact of the study. “The way it was done will not be applicable in the real world, [but] the research is valuable,” Handel told Live Science. “We can discover practical ways to do this by studying the process…and that’s important!
The study’s lead author, Dr. Wolf Reik, director of the institute at biotech company Altos Labs and a former principal investigator at the Babraham Institute, said the long-term implications of the study are very interesting. “Eventually, we may be able to identify genes that rejuvenate without reprogramming, and specifically target those that reduce the effects of aging,” he said in the release.
Originally posted on Live Science