A new breakthrough study has shown how we could restore our cell’s functionality and tackle the unwanted effects of ageing
Ageing is a natural and an inevitable process because no living being is immune to it. Ageing is one of the biggest mysteries for humankind which still needs to fully understood. Scientists worldwide are researching on ageing, example why we get wrinkles on our faces or why we become weaker and fragile and more prone to medical ailments as we grow older. This is very fascinating area of research because the ageing process intrigues every human being and is a topic of debate for many. It is always believed that to be able to ward off ageing we must remain physically active, maintain our body weight etc. But even people leading very healthy lifestyles are prone to the cellular dysfunctions which are a part of a process as natural as ageing. To be able to understand ageing, research needs to be focused on unravelling the molecular mechanisms which are involved in the human ageing process. After gaining better insights, more efficient therapies can be designed to help us age better.
Understanding gene “turn off”
Every cell is our body expresses genes. In other words, some genes are “turned on” and the rest are “turned off”. At a time point only very specific genes are turned on. This important process called gene regulation is a part of normal development. The genes which are turned off are placed against the nuclear membrane (which encompasses the cell nucleus). As we age, our nuclear membranes become lumpy and irregular, therefore the “turning off” of genes gets affected. The study says that the location of our DNA inside the cell’s nucleus is very important. Though we have the same DNA in every single cell but every cell is different. So, certain genes have to turned on in an organ say the liver but have to turned off in another organ and vice versa. And if this turning off is not done properly it can become an issue. This is the reason why gene regulation is very critical for normal development.
Nothing succeeds like success!
The new study published in Aging Cell by researchers at University of Virginia School of Medicine, USA, states that the unwanted effects of ageing may be a result of our cell’s nucleus (which contains our DNA) becoming “wrinkly”. And these wrinkles, researchers say, prevents our genes from functioning properly i.e. it prevents accurate required gene ‘turn on’ and ‘turn off’. Researchers specifically looked at a model of fatty liver disease and found that our livers become lined with fat as we age because of the wrinkly nuclear membranes which are no longer functioning properly. This malfunction can lead to release of DNA from a gene which actually needed to be “turned off”. And this sometimes becomes an ‘over expression’ where it should be none i.e. an abnormal functionality happens. This ultimately causes the normal little liver cell to become a liver fat cell instead. This accumulation of fat inside the liver poses serious health risks including risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and even death.
Protection against unwanted effects of ageing
Researchers discovered that the cause of nuclear membrane becoming wrinkly is the lack of a substance called lamin (with age) which is crucial for cell functioning. Once lamin -a cellular protein which comes in many forms- was reintegrated back into the cells the membranes might be smoothed out and cells would function as if they were young again. It still remains tricky as how to deliver loads of lamin to specifically targeted cells inside i.e. the ones with the wrinkly membranes. Researchers thought of using custom-built engineered viruses for carrying out this delivery. Using such modes of mechanism that uses virus is now becoming a very exciting area of research as viruses are being successfully used to carry out specialized tasks in the body e.g. killing cancer cells or antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Particularly, liver has been an effective target for engineered-virus delivery methods. One study had shown the ability of viruses to deliver gene-regulating proteins directly into liver to help repair damage for patients suffering from liver fibroses. In the current study, once lamin is successfully delivered, the cells will behave like normal healthy cells because the things which do not need to be there will be removed.
Topic of ageing has social relevance
The subject of ageing is one of the key questions raised by individuals and society and it impacts all demographics. This new discovery should be applicable in cure or prevention of diabetes, fatty liver disease, other metabolic diseases where age is a risk factor. Also, it is possible that wrinkling of nuclear membrane might be responsible for unwanted effects in not just the liver (as shown in the current study) but universally speaking in other parts of the body as well. Example in many age-related diseases which affect other organs, the appearance of wrinkly membranes might be a big factor. It may be possible to turn back the clock on ageing in the body taking into account the understanding gained in this study on how the cells in our body degrade with age. This study has been done at a very early hypothetical level but certainly has huge implications on various diseases. Researchers even mention of an “anti-wrinkle” cream for our cells that are inside, similar to let’s say retinol creams which are popularly used in smoothening wrinkles on our face. This appears to be a revolutionary breakthrough in anti-aging. Ageing research has the potential to impact lives. The subject of ageing is multidisciplinary and is relevant to not just life sciences but also economic researchers, psychologists and social scientists
Whitton, Holly 2018, ‘Changes at the nuclear lamina alter binding of pioneer factor Foxa2 in aged liver’, Aging Cell, Vol. 17, no. 3, e12742, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/acel.12742