Though medical advances have improved our ability to treat disease, age remains a significant risk factor in health. By expressing certain transcription factors for a short period, researchers were able to reduce signs of aging in mice, showing the ability to reduce the effects of aging with outside intervention.
The aging process has long been thought of as a unidirectional pathway, with unspecific cells differentiating into a certain role until cellular recovery mechanisms fail and cell death occurs. However, recent discoveries have shown that cells can be forced to become pluripotent (undifferentiated) by the expression of certain factors. Undifferentiating cells could be key in reducing the negative effects of cellular aging and improving cellular recovery.
Previous studies on inducing pluripotency in cells were done in vitro. In vivo studies must be completed due to the complexities of the aging process and factors that may be specific to aging in the body. This reprogramming of cells is done via the short-term expression of certain transcription factors, dubbed the Yamanaka factors. By expressing these factors in mice, researchers hoped to ameliorate the effects of aging and extend the organism’s lifespan.
In a new study published in Cell, Ocampo et al. investigated the effects of epigenetic cellular reprogramming on aging. The researchers expressed factors that would induce cells to return to pluripotency in mice, hypothesizing that these factors would ameliorate damaging effects of aging on organism health and extend lifespan. To examine this, they looked at traditional signs of aging in cells and the ability of the mice to recover from injury.
The study showed that the expression of Yamanaka factors in mice reduced the effects of aging and extended lifespan. Cellular signs of aging were ameliorated and recovery from injury was improved when these transcription factors were expressed. Previous studies showed cancer development as a complication of Yamanaka factor expression, but by expressing them for a short time period, this study was able to avoid tumour formation.
The findings of the study show potential for short term epigenetic intervention in cellular reprogramming and reducing the effects of aging. Further studies need to be done to better understand the mechanisms involved in these improvements in cellular health and to minimize the risks involved with such procedures. With time, cellular reprogramming could provide significant health benefits as we continue to search for ways to combat aging.
Written By: Wesley Tin, BMSc