Quests for anti-aging solutions, usually the stuff of science fiction, have been revived with research into cellular reprogramming. More than 15 years ago, researchers at Kyoto University in Japan identified a series of four proteins that seemed to transform aged cells into younger stem cells. Now termed Yamanaka factors, these proteins have inspired several biotech companies, laboratories, and—of course—investors, to take up the research in hopes of developing technology that can reprogram cells and reduce disease impacts. This blog will cover the ongoing research into cellular reprogramming and explore its origins.
One investor is Richard Klausner, a former head of the National Cancer Institute and former health leader at the Bill Gates Foundation. Klausner, now chief scientist of Altos Labs, has hired numerous scientists with the express intent of developing a process they are calling cellular rejuvenation based on research using the proteins known as Yamanaka factors.
The Biotech Fountain of Youth
Previously, the Yamanaka factors were used primarily in the creation of stem cells, which in turn could be used for the generation of transplantable tissues and organs. The proteins are thought to “reset” the epigenome, chemicals that turn a gene “on” or “off.” In 2013, Spanish scientists attempted to apply the proteins to living mice, with poor results. They discovered that, when dosed for extended periods of time, the stem cells that were created became cancerous and caused the mice to grow tumors. Researchers soon discovered that the proteins did not, in fact, make the cells younger. Rather, they erased their identity and transformed them into stem cells, which are usually not present in adult animals.
In 2016, a team of scientists at the Salk Institute in California led by Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, suggested that it may be possible to lessen the effects of aging without erasing the identity of the cells. By subjecting mice to the Yamanaka factors for several shorter periods of time, they were able to mitigate the development of cancerous tumors. According to the studies, the mice may have even grown stronger and lived longer as a result.
Klausner and the researchers at Altos Lab, as well as other organizations, are focusing on further developing the process now referred to as partial reprogramming. He and many others, including David Sinclair, who leads an age-research laboratory at Harvard University, have since proclaimed that we may see the development of treatments for humans. Klausner went even so far as to claim that we might be able to “turn back the clock” at an event in San Diego.
Others are skeptical. Despite the huge expenditures being funneled into the projects, Alfonso Martinez Arias sees Altos’ work as an alchemy project, equivalent to the fruitless attempts in centuries past to convert lead to gold. Martinez believes that the research could still discover something important, though he believes that a lot more evidence would be needed before they could claim to have discovered the key to medical rejuvenation.
Extending the Healthspan
British researchers affiliated with Altos have discovered, however, that the chemical markers that denote the age of a cell seem to be affected by the Yamanaka factors. One theory suggests that it is the degradation of these chemical markers that induces aging. By counteracting the degradation process in these cells, we could live longer and live in a healthier body as we age.
Klausner notes that his research is not intended to extend lifespan, rather it is to extend the time we spend in good health, and to prevent certain diseases. Recent developments by David Sinclair’s team at Harvard suggest this is a possibility, driving continued interest and excitement among biotech leaders that a fountain of youth might be within reach.
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