People with a rare premature aging disease called dyskeratosis congenita (DKC) experience many of the symptoms we associate with the normal aging process – such as gray hair – but also experience serious symptoms such as anemia and a predisposition to cancer.
It is thought that the symptoms of DKC are brought on by the body’s inability to properly maintain telomeres, the caps on the end of chromosomes that get shorter as we age. Researchers at Children’s Hospital Boston were able to “reprogram” cells using a stem cell therapy that actually lengthened telomeres, providing hope for those diagnosed with DKC but also those of us who hope to escape the ravages of aging:
In the new study, Suneet Agarwal, a physician and researcher at Children’s Hospital, and collaborators took skin cells from three patients with the disease and genetically engineered the cells to express a set of genes that triggers reprogramming, reverting the cells to an embryonic state. They were surprised to find that the reprogrammed cells grew and divided, their telomeres lengthening with subsequent divisions.
“They show that they can make the cells young,” says Lorenz Studer, a physician and scientist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, in New York, who was not involved in the research. The defect in the telomerase enzyme “seems to be repressed or overridden during reprogramming, which probably explains why patients do reasonably well in the early stages of life,” he says. “Patients still have same mutation whether in the [skin cell] or iPS cell, but the mutation only manifests itself in the differentiated cell.”
The results of the study were published online last week in the journal Nature.