Scientists at Newcastle University  have identified that the activity of a key metabolic enzyme found in the "batteries" of human skin cells (mitochondrial complex II) significantly decreases with age.

Draining Batteries
Professor Mark Birch-Machin. Credit: Image courtesy of Newcastle University

Mark Birch-Machin, Professor of Molecular Dermatology at Newcastle University, led the pioneering study with Dr. Amy Bowman from his research group.

"As our bodies age we see that the batteries in our cells run down, known as decreased bio-energy, and harmful free radicals increase...this process is easily seen in our skin as increased fine lines, wrinkles and sagging appears. You know the story, or at least your mirror does first thing in the morning," explains Professor Birch-Machin.

"Our study shows, for the first time, in human skin that with increasing age there is a specific decrease in the activity of a key metabolic enzyme found in the batteries of the skin cells."

Birch-Machin and his team consider the enzyme they researched to be the hinge between the two important ways of making energy in our cells. They believe a decrease in its activity contributes to decreased bio-energy in aging skin.

"Our research means that we now have a specific biomarker, or a target, for developing and screening anti-aging treatments and cosmetic creams that may counter this decline in bio-energy. There is now a possibility of finding anti-aging treatments which can be tailored to differently aged and differently pigmented skin, and with the additional possibility to address the aging process elsewhere in our bodies."

So how exactly did the team come to this conclusion?

In their study, complex II activity was measured in 27 donors, from six to 72 years of age. Samples were taken from a sun-protected area of skin to determine if there was a difference in activity with increasing age. It was found that complex II activity significantly declined with age, per unit of mitochondria, in the cells derived from the lower rather than the upper levels, an observation not previously reported for human skin.

The scientists found that the reason for this is the amount of enzyme protein was decreased; furthermore, this decrease was only observed in those cells that had stopped proliferating.

Fountain of Youth

Further study is necessary to fully understand the functional consequences in skin and other tissues, and to establish methods to asses anti-aging strategies in human skin. But not only could this discovery help in developing cosmetic products, it could lead to a greater understanding of how other organs in the body age. In turn, this could pave the way for drug developments in a number of age-related diseases, including cancer.

Dr. Bowman, Research Associate at Newcastle University's Institute of Cellular Medicine, said: "Newcastle University is pioneering research into aging as it has long been thought that mitochondria play an important role in the aging process, however the exact role has remained unclear. Our work brings us one step closer to understanding how these vital cell structures may be contributing to human aging, with the hope of eventually specifically targeting areas of the mitochondria in an attempt to counteract the signs of aging."

So while there is no hope for eternal youth just yet, our lives may be getting a bit more vitality in the near future.

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