In the film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a unique set of circumstances creates an interesting anomaly. Rather than growing older from birth to death, Benjamin Button is born old and becomes younger. As a plot for the film, the concept is indeed intriguing. But for those seeking to reverse the effects of aging in real life, it represents the Holy Grail of their work. If they could find anti-aging factors that might reverse aging, youthfulness might be preserved indefinitely. Based on recent laboratory experiments, it seems researchers have moved a few steps closer toward their goal.
In more than one university, researchers are exploring how cells might be manipulated to be more youthful. By applying specific anti-aging factors to these cells, they hope to reverse the effects of aging. If successful, a variety of degenerative diseases could be more effectively managed. Likewise, these same therapies could make us more resilient to stress and more resistant to illness. Though the investigations are in their early stages, results in mice look surprisingly promising. And what’s even more impressive is the short duration of treatment needed to see positive effects.
“We’ve wondered for some time if it might be possible to simply rewind the aging clock without inducing pluripotency. Now we’ve found that, by tightly controlling the duration of the exposure to these protein factors, we can promote rejuvenation in multiple human cell types.” – Vittorio Sebastiano, Associate Professor of Reproductive and Stem Cell Biology, Stanford Medicine
The Process of Cell Rejuvenation
In attempting to reverse the effects of aging on cells, the process is relatively new. As nanotechnology and stem cell research has advanced, new opportunities to explore anti-aging factors have emerged. This includes the use of mRNA methodologies that allow researchers to trigger cells to make specific proteins. (Dig into Bold’s research on mRNA vaccines here!) In terms of anti-aging pursuits, specific proteins include those referred to as Yamanaka factors. Yamanaka factors consist of four proteins that once applied to cells triggers them to return to their embryonic state. Naturally, a more embryonic state is one that is more youthful, which is why these factors are important.
In essence, Yamanaka factors are believed to be very important in regulating the development of cells. When present, these proteins trigger adult mature cells to become stem cells. Because stem cells are more immature in nature, they can then develop in a number of different directions. But at the same time, stem cells are more youthful in nature and result in more youthful functioning and appearance. Thus, by bathing adult cells in Yamanaka anti-aging factors, researchers are able to create younger functioning cells. In the process, they reverse the effects of aging at a cellular level, resulting in cellular rejuvenation.
“At the end of the day, we want to bring resilience and function back to older cells so that they are more resistant to stress, injury and disease.” – Dr. Pradeep Reddy, Scientific Researcher in Biologic Studies, Salk Institute
Cellular Level Research of Anti-Aging Factors
Over the last year, cellular level research has explored how anti-aging factors affect various cell types. At Standford University, experiments have been conducted on mice with premature aging. Notably, after exposed to Yamanaka factors, the mice showed improvements in cell function. Specifically, heart and brain cells performed in a more youthful manner. Likewise, other cells, such as cartilage cells from mice with osteoarthritis, showed less inflammation. All of this suggests that it’s possible to reverse the effects of aging at a cellular level. By resetting the cellular clock, cells functioned better as if years younger.
These studies not only looked at cell function in assessing the effects of anti-aging factors. These same researchers also examined DNA methylation alterations among cells treated and not treated with these proteins. For skin cells, exposure to Yamanaka factors resulted in methylation patterns more typical of cells 1.5 to 3.5 years younger. For blood cells, the effects were more pronounced, appearing 7.5 years younger. Thus, in addition to rejuvenation in metabolism, treated cells were less “aged” at a molecular level. This provides additional proof that it’s feasible to reverse the effects of aging on these cells.
“We are elated that we can use this approach across the life span to slow down aging in normal animals. The technique is both safe and effective in mice.” – Juan Carlos Izpisúa Belmonte. Professor at Gene Expressions Laboratory, Salk Institute
Recent Animal Anti-Aging Research
In the last few months, additional studies involving animal research and anti-aging factors have been published. One, in particular, has shown impressive results when exposing different age mice to therapies. Researchers at the Salk Institute took three groups of mice of different ages. One group were comprised of mice equivalent to young adults when compared to humans. The other two groups were the equivalent of middle age and elderly. The mice were then treated with Yamanaka factors for several months. While the elderly mice had little change, the other two groups demonstrated marked improvements in appearance and ability. And the most impressive finding was they were able to reverse the effects of aging within seven to ten months of treatment.
After the treatments, mice were then examined further for any other findings or complications. Importantly, researchers found no negative effects on blood cells, neurological function, or cancerous changes. Likewise, skin cells, retinal cells, muscle cells, and brain cells all appeared younger in nature on closer examination. Skin appeared more youthful, and metabolism became more stable. Based on these results, researchers were optimistic about the future of anti-aging factors and their use in humans. While much more work is needed, these research techniques may be useful to reverse the effects of aging in humans as well.
Pursuing Youthfulness with Caution
Certainly, these early experiments on cells and mice appear quite promising. They suggest that anti-aging factors might be a way to reverse the effects of aging and offer greater health. This is notable important when it comes to many degenerative conditions. But it also has significance in terms of human longevity, abilities, and even evolution. Many are predicting the business of anti-aging will be huge in the coming years as a result. (Read more about the business of anti-aging in this Bold story.) However, the researchers involved in the studies above are the first to recommend caution. No human studies have been performed, and these are likely years away. Therefore, a healthy dose of caution is warranted. But these initial results are exciting and will undoubtedly lead to additional investigations in the near future.