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Genetic breakthrough may halt and even reverse the aging process

By Stephen Morgan     May 2, 2015 in Health
Scientists researching a premature aging illness may have discovered the genetic process, which makes us grow old. They hope it could lead to treatments which will cure diseases, stop the aging process, and even reverse it.
Advances in the understanding of the aging process have been coming fast and furious in recent years and now scientists have now made an important breakthrough that could lead to a treatment.
The scientists at Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, and the Chinese Academy of Science also believe this process could be a major cause of age-related illnesses like Alzheimer and cancer.
The recent discovery came as a result of studies into Werner syndrome — a rare disease which accelerates the aging process and causes sufferers to die prematurely. The research found that the cause of the illness lies with a protein enzyme mutation that disorganizes DNA bundles in human cells.
Science AAAS says that cells in young people fold proteins around the DNA into what is called chromatin and this is fused into an orderly arrangement called heterochromatin. However, these DNA packages become disrupted as people get older and, in Werner syndrome, this was observed to happen at a much faster pace.
Healthy human cells (left) and those genetically modified to Werner syndrome (right)
Healthy human cells (left) and those genetically modified to Werner syndrome (right)
Salk Institute for Biological Studies
Results from people with Werner syndrome showed that their bodies were less able to repair damaged DNA, causing it to lose the ability to divide and leading to stagnation and the break down of the genetic bundles.
Consequently, people with Werner syndrome look 10 to 20 years older than they really are, and they die a decade or two earlier than average people.
When scientists compared the teeth of healthy, younger people with those who were middle aged or elderly, they found that a similar process was taking place. Their analysis showed a significant decrease in heterochromatin as people grew older. There was a clear correlation between aging and the increased disorder of their DNA.
Science AAAS quotes molecular biologist Robert Brosh of the National Institute on Aging in Bethesda, Maryland, who wasn’t connected to the research, as saying
“This study provides evidence that abnormal chromatin structure … is likely a major contributing factor to premature aging characteristic of the genetic disorder Werner syndrome." He added that the work suggests that “defective chromatin organization may underlie normal aging as well.”
Laboratory experiments indicate that this process can be stopped and even reversed. By halting the reduction in heterochromatin and the resultant "wandering" DNA, scientists believe they can switch off genes, which shouldn't be turned on.
Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, Ph.D., — a professor at the Salk Institute and senior author of the paper — is quoted in Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News, as saying;
"This has implications beyond Werner syndrome, as it identifies a central mechanism of aging—heterochromatin disorganization—which has been shown to be reversible."
The current finding have been published in the journal, Science.
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