Stopping the aging process has long been a human fascination, but it’s usually been considered the stuff science fiction rather than possibility. That, however, is changing.
A study published last year in the journal Cell upended some assumptions about aging as scientists believe they have found a molecule that can repair faltering circulation in aging mice. Diminished or compromised blood flow plays a big role in the aging process, depriving tissues and organs, including the brain, of nutrients and oxygen that are vital to healthy function.
The study found that researchers could provide elderly mice with a molecule called nicotinamide mononucleotide (NMN). It is then converted into another compound that aides in the creation of small blood vessels in cells which line muscle and organs. Now, researchers are studying the impact NMN can has on humans.
But that’s just one study of many that has signaled progress for the antiaging movement in recent years.
Another study from the University of Exeter in England focused on the reverse aging of human genes by focusing on senescent cells and what are called splicing factors. The latter is a type of protein involved helping genes express themselves normally, but as we age, the process of senescence, or a state in which cells stop dividing and slip into a state of growth arrest without dying, causes the cells to be inactive and essentially turn off.
The researchers found that by applying a compound commonly found in wine and foods such as dark chocolate and blueberries called resveratrol, they can actually reverse senescence and cause the splicing factors to reactivate.
Other research has indicated that aging is actually an epigenetic process, or in other words it is often fueled by nongenetic forces, such as the environment we live in. A 2016 study published in Cell found that by tweaking genes that turn adult cells back into embryoniclike cells, scientists were able to manipulate the behavior of human skin cells.
The researchers from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies were able to reverse the aging of mouse and human cells in vitro, and also extend the life of a mouse with an accelerated-aging condition. In addition, they successfully promoted recovery from an injury in a middle-aged mouse.
How did they do it? By activating gene regulators known as the Yamanaka factors, named after the Japanese Nobel Prize winner who discovered their potential, Shinya Yamanaka. These factors reverse the effects of aging on gene regulators caused by epigenetic factors by turning cells into pluripotent stem cells capable of dividing indefinitely and becoming any type of cell needed.
“This work shows that epigenetic changes are at least partially driving aging,” said co-first author of the study Paloma Martinez-Redondo, a Salk Institute research associate. “It gives us exciting insights into which pathways could be targeted to delay cellular aging.”
Research examining this sort of genetic reprogramming is still in its early stages, but along with other innovative research around therapies such as hyperbaric oxygen therapy, stem cell rejuvenation and the effects of different approaches to nutrition, there is a newfound hope that aging is not an automatic process, but rather something we can manipulate and even reverse to significantly extend healthy lifespans.
“Aging may not have to proceed in one single direction,” Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, a professor in Salk’s Gene Expression Laboratory and senior author of the research. “It has plasticity and, with careful modulation, aging might be reversed.”