In Brief
Researchers delivered a modified RNA that increases the length of telomeres. Here are the implications that this has in the study of age-related diseases.

Last January, the Stanford University School of Medicine is reported the success of a new procedure that can “turn back the clock,” in cultured human cells. Ultimately, reversing the again process is something that humans have been working towards for some time, and although this is far from a “cure-all,” it is a notable step forward.

Here’s how it works:

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Researchers delivered a modified RNA that increases the length of the protective caps on the ends of chromosomes, called telomeres, the part of the chromosome that’s linked to aging and disease.

The result: Cell proliferation capacity was dramatically increased, yielding large numbers of cells for study.

In fact, skin cells with telomeres lengthened by the procedure were able to divide up to 40 more times than untreated cells.

The Fountain of Youth

When we’re born, our telomeres are about 8,000-10,000 nucleotides long. They shorten with each cell division. Unfortunately, an object can only divide so many times, and the same goes for a cell. When it reaches that critical length, it either stops dividing or dies.

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With this process, though, scientists can lengthen human telomeres by as much as 1,000 nucleotides.

This equates to “many years of human life,” says Helen Blau, PhD professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford and director of the university’s Baxter Laboratory for Stem Cell Biology.

This procedure is unique because it’s temporary. The modified RNA is designed to reduce the cell’s immune response to the treatment and allow the message the RNA delivered to stick around longer. After 48 hours, though, it disappears.

In the press release, Stanford Medicine likens the effect to “tapping the gas pedal in one of a fleet of cars coasting slowly to a stop. The car with the extra surge of energy will go father than its peers, but it will still come to an eventual halt when its forward momentum is spent.”

It’s important that the process is temporary because the treated cells won’t divide indefinitely. This would make them too dangerous to use as a potential therapy in humans because of the risk of cancer.

Medical and Laboratory Uses

As research continues, not only will this procedure improve the ability of researchers to generate large numbers of cells for study or drug development, but it could also point to new ways to treat diseases caused by shortened telomeres.

“This new approach paves the way toward preventing or treating diseases of aging,” says Blau.

If you want to learn more about telomeres, and the work that scientists are doing with them, then check out this detailed information from the University of Utah.