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In what could be breakthrough research on human aging, researchers have found a way to rejuvenate inactive senescent cells.

Scientists from the University of Exeter have discovered a new  treatment which, within hours, caused older cells to start dividing and grow longer telomeres—the caps on the chromosomes that shorten as humans age.

The discovery builds on previous research that showed that a class of genes called splicing factors are progressively switched off as people age.

In the new study, the researchers found that splicing factors can be switched back on with chemicals, making senescent cells not only look physically younger, but start to behave more like young cells and start dividing.

The researchers applied compounds called resveratrol analogues—chemicals based on a substance naturally found in red wine, dark chocolate, red grapes and blueberries—to cells in culture that caused splicing factors to be switched back on.

Within only a few hours, the cells appeared younger and started to rejuvenate to behave like young cells and divide.

“When I saw some of the cells in the culture dish rejuvenating I couldn't believe it,” Eva Latorre, Ph.D., a research associate at the University of Exeter, said in a statement. “I repeated the experiments several times and in each case the cells rejuvenated.”

As human beings age, tissues accumulate senescent cells that are alive, but do not grow or function as they should. The older cells lose the ability to correctly regulate the output of their genes, which is a reason why tissues and organs become susceptible to diseases.

Splicing factors are critical in ensuring that genes can perform their full range of functions, where one gene can send out several messages to the body to perform a function, including deciding whether or not to grow new blood vessels.

However, as people age splitting factors work less efficiently or not at all, restricting the ability of cells to respond to challenges in their environment.

“This demonstrates that when you treat old cells with molecules that restore the levels of the splicing factors, the cells regain some features of youth,” Lorna Harries, a professor of Molecular Genetics at the University of Exeter, said in a statement. “They are able to grow, and their telomeres - the caps on the ends of the chromosomes that shorten as we age - are now longer, as they are in young cells.

“Far more research is needed now to establish the true potential for these sort of approaches to address the degenerative effects of aging.” 

The discovery could lead to new therapies that help people age better without experiencing some of the degenerative effects of getting old.

“This is a first step in trying to make people live normal lifespans, but with health for their entire life,” Harries said. “Our data suggests that using chemicals to switch back on the major class of genes that are switched off as we age might provide a means to restore function to old cells.”

The study was published in BMC Cell Biology.

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