It's understood that degenerative diseases like Alzheimers and cancer can make a person's “golden years” look pretty bleak. However, there’s some hope on the horizon thanks to some new research from England. A research team at the University of Exeter has found a way to possibly stave off these diseases by making older cells act and look like younger ones.
Older cells have a tendency to stop dividing (or splicing) as people age, which can lead to a host of degenerative diseases. The body cleanses itself of these cells most the time, but they can begin to pile up as an older immune system starts to break down.
“We had seen from human populations and old cells that the splicing factors get downregulated as we age, so you can’t adapt as well to challenges in your internal and external environment,” study leader and University of Exeter Professor of Molecular Genetics Lorna Harries told Fox News. “What we didn’t know was whether these changes were a cause of aging or just an effect.”
The researchers found some inspiration from resveratrol, a chemical found naturally in dark chocolate, blueberries and red wine. Harries had seen some reports that suggested the chemical was capable of switching back on a few of the 170 different splicing factors, and wondered if resveratrol could moderate the levels of the rest of them as well.
But experts say don't start downing red wine just yet.
“We really aren’t trying to tell people that chocolate or red wine makes you look younger or live longer,” Harries said. “This is how a lot of the media have painted it!"
Though resveratrol’s regenerative effects have been documented before, Harries and her team found that creating a compound that could mimic resveratol’s regenerative mechanism was more effective than resveratrol itself.
“In actual fact, we didn’t just use resveratrol, as this compound has lots of other effects,” she explained. “In collaboration with colleagues at the University of Brighton, we made a series of other chemicals that resembled resveratrol but were not identical and had different properties, which allowed us to isolate the effects on splicing factor levels from the other effects of resveratrol.”
The team experimented with the new compound, testing its effects on living human cells in a lab. To their surprise, the cells began rejuvenating.
“I had anticipated that we might see some changes in splicing factor levels, but we really didn’t anticipate to see such marked changes in the levels of old cells in the cell population,” Harries added. “That was something of a surprise.”
The team now believes that rather than each degenerative disease of aging having a unique cause, a lot of them actually share common causes and that the changes in splicing factor expression could be just one of these. By addressing these causes, theoretically you could attack a number of diseases at once– including common ailments in the elderly like cancer, cardiovascular disease, dementia and diabetes.
So when can we see this technology at work? Unfortunately, Harries predicts it’s at least 20 to 30 years away.
“We need to pinpoint exactly how the splicing factors are causing the cells to rejuvenate, and identify the key points where we could intervene to stop them declining as we age, or to restore them once the damage is done,” she said. “We’re now addressing why the splicing factors get switched off as we age, what the downstream consequences of this are for the regulation of our genes and the behavior of our cells, and also to identify new ways by which we might be able to intervene in these processes.”