How scientists made a 53-year-old's skin cells look 30 years younger

Images from the Babraham Institute show human skin cells temporarily changing shape.

Scientists have rejuvenated a 53-year-old's skin cells so they are equivalent to that of a 23-year-old's. Researchers say they have developed a method to time jump human skin cells by three decades – longer than previous reprogramming methods, rewinding the ageing clock without the cells losing their function. Researchers describe being able to partly restore the function of older cells, as well as renew the biological age.

According to the study, in experiments that simulated a skin wound, the partially rejuvenated cells showed signs of behaving more like youthful cells. Experts suggest that, while in their early stages, the findings could eventually lead to treatments for age-related diseases, like Alzheimer's and cataracts.

Old fibroblasts that have not undergone reprogramming (left) next to reprogrammed cells (right). Collagen is shown in red.

Professor Wolf Reik, a group leader in the Epigenetics research programme who has recently moved to lead the Altos Labs Cambridge Institute, said the findings had "very exciting implications". He continued: “Eventually, we may be able to identify genes that rejuvenate without reprogramming, and specifically target those to reduce the effects of ageing. “This approach holds promise for valuable discoveries that could open up an amazing therapeutic horizon.”

Dr Diljeet Gill, a postdoctoral researcher in Prof Reik’s lab at the Babraham Institute who conducted the work as a PhD student, said: “Our results represent a big step forward in our understanding of cell reprogramming. “The fact that we also saw a reverse of ageing indicators in genes associated with diseases is particularly promising for the future of this work.”

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As people age, their cells’ ability to function declines and the genome – DNA blueprint – accumulates marks of ageing.

Regenerative biology aims to repair or replace cells, including old ones. One of the most important tools in regenerative biology is our ability to create ‘induced’ stem cells.

However, this process essentially wipes the cells of their function and gives them the potential to become any cell type. The new method, based on the Nobel Prize-winning technique scientists use to make stem cells, overcomes the problem of completely erasing cell identity by stopping reprogramming part of the way through the process. This allowed researchers to find the precise balance between reprogramming cells, making them biologically younger, while still being able to regain their specialised cell function. They say the potential applications of this technique are dependent on the cells not only appearing younger but functioning like young cells too. Experts suggest that, in the future, the research may also open up other therapeutic possibilities. They observed that their method also had an effect on other genes linked to age-related diseases and symptoms, like the APBA2 gene associated with Alzheimer’s disease, and the MAF gene with a role in the development of cataracts. The research is published in the journal eLife.