The Mechanisms of Aging

For a phenomenon that affects all living beings, there's nothing simple about aging. Experiments that focus on understanding aging are as numerous and varied as the aspects of the subject itself. Some look at the roles that the brain or the mitochondria have on aging, while others examine some protein or another. A study from the Houston Methodist Research Institute (HMRI) is focusing on chromosomes.

Specifically, the team led by cardiovascular sciences department chair John Cooke, looked at telomeres — the region located at the tip of every chromosome, the length of which supposedly corresponds to age. Cooke's team studied the cells of children with a fatal genetic disease called progeria that causes rapid aging.

In their study, published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, the researchers discovered that extending the shortened telomeres effectively halted aging in the isolated sample cells taken from the patients with progeria. “What we’ve shown is that when we reverse the process of the telomere shortening in the cells from these children and lengthen them, it can reverse a lot of the problems associated with aging," Cooke said in an HMRI press release.

Extending Telomeres Beyond a Lab

Cooke's team isn't the first to associate telomeres with aging. The field, however, isn't considered that precise yet. Medical genetics professor Peter Lansdorp at the University of British Columbia told Motherboard that there's still a lot to learn in this area. "It is not hard to find a 70-year-old with longer telomeres than a teenager," he said, noting that the decline in telomeres works as a "tumor suppression mechanism" for the body.

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Furthermore, since the study was limited to cell samples — taken from just 17 patients — on a lab dish, the researchers still need to see if it could work in cells functioning inside the body. The next step is to deliver the same treatment directly into patients, beginning with children suffering from progeria.

Still, Cooke is hopeful. “We can at least stall or slow down accelerated aging, and that’s what we’re working toward,” he said in the press release. "I want to develop a therapy for these children. It’s an unmet need.”

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