Researchers rejuvenated the skin cells of a 53-year-old woman, making them equivalent to those of a 23-year-old woman.
Scientists in Cambridge, UK, believe they can do the same thing with other tissues in the body.
The ultimate goal is to develop treatments for age-related diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and neurological disorders.
The technology is based on the techniques used to create Dolly the sheep, cloned over 25 years ago.
Wolf Reik, team leader at the Babraham Institute in Cambridge, tells BBC News he hopes the technique could one day be used to keep people healthier longer as they age.
“We’ve been dreaming about this kind of thing. Many common illnesses get worse with age, and the thought of helping people in this way is super-exciting,” he says.
Reich emphasizes that the study, which was published in the scientific journal eLife, is at a very early stage. And there are several scientific issues to overcome before you can leave your lab and enter the clinical phase.
But, he said, demonstrating for the first time that cellular rejuvenation is possible was a fundamental advance.
The technique’s origins date back to the 1990s, when researchers at the Roslin Institute outside Edinburgh, Scotland, developed a method to transform a mammary gland cell taken from an adult sheep into an embryo. This led to the creation of Dolly the cloned sheep.
The goal of Roslin’s team was not to generate clones of sheep or even humans, but to use the technique to create so-called human embryonic stem cells. These, they hoped, could be turned into specific tissues such as muscle, cartilage and nerve cells to replace worn-out body parts.
The Dolly technique was simplified in 2006 by Shinya Yamanaka, then a professor at Kyoto University in Japan. The new method, called IPS, involved adding chemicals to adult cells for about 50 days. This resulted in genetic changes that turned the adult cells into stem cells.
In the Dolly and IPS techniques, the stem cells created must give rise to the cells and tissues that the patient needs. This has proved difficult, and despite decades of effort, the use of stem cells to treat disease is currently extremely limited.
Reik’s team used the IPS technique on skin cells from a 53-year-old woman. But it reduced the chemical bath from 50 days to about 12. Dilgeet Gill, a member of the team, was surprised to find that the cells had not turned into embryonic stem cells — but had rejuvenated, looked and behaved like the cells of the skin of a 23 year old. That is, some biomarkers were restored to “younger levels”.
“I remember the day I got the results and I couldn’t believe that some of the cells were 30 years younger than they should be. It was a very emotional day!” he says.
The technique cannot be clinically tested immediately because the IPS method increases the risk of cancer. But Reik is confident that now that it is known that it is possible to rejuvenate cells, his team will be able to find an alternative, safer method.
“The long-term goal is to extend human health, rather than (extend just the length of) life, so people can age healthier,” he says.
According to him, some of the first applications could be the development of drugs to rejuvenate the skin of elderly people in parts of the body that have been cut or burned – as a way of accelerating healing.
The researchers demonstrated that this is in principle possible, showing that rejuvenated skin cells move faster in experiments that simulate a wound.
The next step is to see if the technology will work in other tissues, such as muscle, liver and blood cells.
Melanie Welham, executive chairman of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, which funded some of the research that led to Dolly the sheep, told BBC News that the technology’s clinical benefits may not be that far off.
“If similar approaches or new therapies can rejuvenate immune cells, which we know become less responsive as we age, in the future it may be possible to increase people’s response to vaccination, as well as their ability to fight infections.”
The big question is whether research efforts in this area would lead to a method of regenerating the body as a whole, an elixir of youth or an anti-aging pill. According to Reik, this idea is not completely absurd.
“The technique has been applied to genetically modified mice, and there are some signs of rejuvenation. One study showed signs of a rejuvenated pancreas, which is interesting for the potential to fight diabetes.”
But Robin Lovell-Badge, from the Crick Institute in London, believes that there are considerable scientific obstacles between the result Reik obtained in the laboratory and the simpler clinical applications.
Nor does he think it will be trivial to replicate the rejuvenation process for other types of tissue or an anti-aging pill.
“It would be nice to find other chemicals to do the same thing, but they can be just as harmful. So it’s ambitious to think that you’ll find these chemicals easily and that they’ll be safer.”
“It’s also quite possible that other cell types require different conditions that can be difficult to control. And whether you can safely do this with the whole body is so far away, I’d say it’s pure speculation.”
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