Researchers at Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, have undergone a study to see whether aging can be reversed by reprogramming the genome. Not in humans of course, but rather in mice. And as if from a science fiction movie, they have achieved this feat successfully as published in the Thursday issue of the journal ‘Cell’.
In the first attempt to reverse biological aging, they have successfully rejuvenated the organs of mice and lengthened their life spans by 30 percent. This marvel in genetic engineering cannot by applied directly to people, but their current success points towards a better understanding of aging and the possibility of rejuvenation human tissues.
Scientists and writers alike have pondered the possibility of slowing down aging, but to think they have opened a door to the potential of even reversing the aging process will open many new doors, both in research and technology. This breakthrough has not come out of the blue and is rather a culmination of many research studies over the last two decades.
The most notable discover within this science occurred ten years ago, when the Japanese biologist Shinya Yamanaka identified four critical genes that reset the clock of the fertilized human egg. This is the phenomenon that despite the age of the parent’s cells, at conception, the biological clock is reset to zero leaving a fertilized egg to be free of its parents aged cells. The four genes are so powerful that they will reprogram the genome of skin or intestinal cells back to the embryonic state, as if the cells they originated from were the embryonic cells themselves.
Dr. Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte contemplated a different approach to the study that many other laboratories had attempted since Shinya’s discovery. He approached the study alongside his fascination for the ability some animals have to regenerate limbs, such as lizards and fish. In these animals, the cells near the lost appendage revert to a stage midway between an embryonic cell and an adult cell before rebuilding the missing limb, suggesting that the process of regeneration has more than one step in completion.
Alongside the rest of the team, Dr. Izpisua devised a method in which to deliver the Yamanaka factors to the mice, without killing them, a feat no other study was successful in achieving. Through the process of genetic engineering, each mouse was given extra copies of the four Yamanaka genes, which only became activated upon drinking water containing a specific drug over a period of time.
According to Dr. Izpisua, “What we saw is that the animal has fewer signs of aging, healthier organs, and at the of the experiment we could see they had lived 30 percent longer than control mice.” It is important to note that the mice on which the study was published naturally age prematurely, shortening the time needed to measure results, whereas the ‘normal’ mice are still living delaying the conclusion as to whether their life was also extended.
Whether this is the next key factor to reducing aging as we know it, or just one more complicated discovery in science that helps us to ask more questions, the results that have been achieved are truly remarkable.