An ‘elixir of youth’ pill could be on the horizon after a breakthrough by British scientists.
It would target the harmful cells that fuel inflammation and increase the risk of heart disease, cancer, dementia and other potentially fatal conditions.
The process known as ‘senescence’ happens to us all as we get older – and a Scottish team has found how to control it.
Study leader Professor Wendy Bickmore, director of the Medical Research Council’s Human Genetics Unit at the University of Edinburgh, said: “These findings provide us with a much clearer understanding of how senescence causes cell damage.”
The vital cell process plays a key role in age related illnesses. Developing a drug to combat it is considered the Holy Grail in anti ageing research.
Senescent cells have also been dubbed ‘zombie cells’ because although they are alive they have lost their ability to divide.
The non-functioning cells have been linked to everything from arthritis to Alzheimer’s disease.
Most human cells can reproduce a limited number of times. This protects against cancer as the more cells divide, the greater the chance they will accumulate errors.
Cellular senescence helps keep humans predominantly free of cancer in the first half of life.
But as we age the senescent cells accumulate, secreting inflammatory molecules that can damage neighbouring tissue and trigger illness.
The new findings could shed light on a host of serious diseases such as cancer and diabetes – and lead to a medication that prevents them.
Prof Bickmore said: “Whilst we are some way from being able to halt the damage caused by the ageing process, we hope this advance will open up avenues to explore how we might slow some of the harm that stems from senescence.
“This could be of relevance to the many conditions that tend to affect us as we grow older.”
Some of the damaging cell effects linked to ageing could be stopped by manipulating tiny parts of cells, say her team.
They focused on a chain of harmful reactions known as SASP (senescence-associated secretory phenotype).
This is a cascade of chemical signals that can leads to damage to cells through inflammation.
Experiments found simple alterations to the ‘nuclear pores’ – gateways through which molecules enter the heart of a cell – blocked this process.
They also showed DNA had to be reorganised in space within the cell’s nucleus in order for the SASP to be triggered.
Prof Bickmore and colleagues say the study sheds light on the fundamental workings of the cell – and could be instrumental in understanding ageing.
Dr Lindsay Wilson, programme manager for genetics, epigenetics and genomics at the Medical Research Council, added: “This study is important because it provides valuable insights in how cells respond to damage and stress.
“Senescence is an essential self defence mechanism but at times, can also be harmful.
“Professor Bickmore’s work suggests ways in which scientists of the future might target these harmful effects, for example in age-related diseases.”
The study, published in the journal Genes and Development, was funded by the Medical Research Council and Cancer Research UK.
by Mark Waghorn