For the first time, scientists have reprogrammed cells from a 114-year-old woman into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells), a move which they describe as a significant step toward understanding "the underlying mechanisms of extreme longevity and disease resistance."
iPS cells are adult cells that have been genetically reprogrammed into an embryonic stem cell-like state and are able to give rise to any of the specialized cell types of the body, whether it’s neurons, blood cells, or heart cells.
Until this new project, researchers weren’t even certain whether they could create viable iPS cells from someone so elderly, let alone a supercentenarian. Now they have shown it's possible to effectively make these aged cells resemble young pluripotent cells, the researchers believe they might have made a step towards the reversal of cellular aging.
"We set out to answer a big question: Can you reprogram cells this old?" Evan Snyder, stem cell researcher at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute in California, said in a statement.
"Now we have shown it can be done, and we have a valuable tool for finding the genes and other factors that slow down the aging process."
Reporting in the journal Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications, researchers harnessed iPS cells from the blood cells of a 114-year-old woman, a healthy 43-year-old person, and an 8-year-old child with a rare genetic condition characterized by the rapid aging in childhood. These iPS cells were then turned into mesenchymal stem cells, cells that help maintain and repair the body's structural tissues differentiating into bone, cartilage, muscle, or fat cells.
Remarkably, the cells produced from the supercentenarian transformed just as easily as the others. They also noted the supercentenarian-derived stem cells appeared to have “reset” their telomeres.
Telomeres are the protective caps on the end of a chromosome. Since they shorten each time a cell copies itself, they also get shorter as we age and eventually stop functioning properly. This persistent shortening allows researchers to use telomeres as a kind of “aging clock” in every cell. Interestingly, the stem cells from the supercentenarian showed no indication of this aging. They had effectively reset the clock on the cells from 114 years to zero.
To dive deeper into this discovery, the researchers hope to compare body cells derived from the healthy iPSCs and supercentenarian iPSCs. The researchers could also start to use the supercentenarian cells to understand why certain people have such long lives compared to others.
“Why do supercentenarians age so slowly? We are now set to answer that question in a way no one has been able to before,” said Snyder.