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Unlocking the fountain of youth: Groundbreaking protein reverses aging

[Dec. 14, 2023: JD Shavit, The Brighter Side of News]

Research team has shown that a protein can reverse aging in skeletal muscle cells. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)

In the quest to defy the relentless march of time, researchers at the University at Buffalo have unveiled a groundbreaking discovery that may hold the key to reversing cellular aging.

Their study, published in the prestigious journal Science Advances, revolves around a protein with a mythical namesake – NANOG, derived from the fabled Irish land of Tír na nÓg, a place steeped in legends of perpetual youth, beauty, and vitality.


The study's findings are nothing short of remarkable, as they offer a promising avenue for combating the age-related deterioration of skeletal muscle cells. By overexpressing NANOG in senescent myoblasts, the embryonic precursors to muscle tissue, the research team achieved a stunning reversal of key cellular markers associated with aging. These included improvements in autophagy, energy homeostasis, genomic stability, nuclear integrity, and mitochondrial function.

The dramatic impact of NANOG overexpression was further exemplified by an increase in the number of muscle stem cells in prematurely aging mice, demonstrating the potential for rejuvenating cellular aging within the body. Importantly, this method sidesteps the need to reprogram cells to an embryonic pluripotent state, a process fraught with the risk of tumorigenesis, frequently utilized in stem cell therapy.


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Dr. Stelios T. Andreadis, the corresponding author of the study and a SUNY Distinguished Professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at the UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, shed light on the research's ultimate goal: "Our work focuses on understanding the mechanisms of NANOG’s actions in hopes of discovering druggable targets in signaling or metabolic networks that mimic the anti-aging effects of NANOG. Ultimately, the work could help lead to new treatments or therapies that help reverse cellular senescence, and aid the many people suffering from age-related disorders."

But what exactly is cellular senescence, and why is it such a critical factor in aging and age-related diseases?


Cellular Senescence: The Aging Conundrum

Senescent cells possess a unique characteristic – they cease to multiply but stubbornly refuse to die when they should. Instead, they persist and release a cocktail of chemicals that can trigger inflammation. Much like a single moldy fruit spoiling the entire bowl, a small population of senescent cells can disseminate inflammation that damages neighboring cells.

Fluorescent confocal image of NANOG Polyclonal Antibody. (CREDIT: Abcepta)

However, it's worth noting that not all senescent cells are inherently harmful. The molecules and compounds secreted by senescent cells, known as the senescent secretome, serve vital roles throughout life, including during embryonic development, childbirth, and wound healing.


The Challenge of Aging

As one ages, the number of senescent cells within the body gradually increases. As the immune system becomes less efficient with time, these senescent cells accumulate and taint the surrounding healthy cells. This process has far-reaching consequences, impacting a person's ability to withstand stress, recover from injuries, and even learn new things, as senescent cells in the brain can impair cognitive functions.

This phenomenon of cellular senescence has been linked to a multitude of age-related conditions, including cancer, diabetes, osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, stroke, Alzheimer's disease, and related dementias, as well as osteoarthritis. Moreover, it has been implicated in the deterioration of eyesight, mobility, and cognitive abilities.

Intriguingly, researchers are now exploring the possibility that senescent skin cells may contribute to sagging and wrinkling, and that senescent cells could be a key factor in the cytokine storm of inflammation that makes COVID-19 particularly lethal for older adults.


NANOG: A Ray of Hope in the Battle Against Aging

The discovery of NANOG's potent anti-aging properties represents a significant breakthrough in the field of cellular senescence. By overexpressing this protein in senescent myoblasts, the research team was able to reverse many of the hallmarks of aging, offering a glimpse into the potential of combating age-related disorders without resorting to the risky process of reprogramming cells to an embryonic pluripotent state.

The research could help lead to treatments for atherosclerosis, osteoporosis and other age-related disorders (Credit: University of Buffalo)

Autophagy, the cell's internal cleaning system, was significantly enhanced, ensuring that damaged cellular components were efficiently cleared away. Energy homeostasis, which plays a pivotal role in maintaining cellular functions, was restored to a more youthful state. Genomic stability, nuclear integrity, and mitochondrial function – all crucial factors in maintaining cell health – exhibited marked improvements.


One of the most striking outcomes of this research was the increase in muscle stem cells within prematurely aging mice. This finding holds great promise for future therapies that aim to rejuvenate not only muscle cells but potentially other tissues and organs within the body. The potential for developing targeted drugs that mimic the effects of NANOG opens up exciting possibilities for addressing a wide range of age-related disorders.

This illustration shows a senescent muscle cell (left), including the numerous factors that led to its declining ability to divide and grow. It also shows the same type of cell after the overexpression of NANOG, which reversed many of the factors. (CREDIT: University at Buffalo)

As the scientific community delves deeper into the intricacies of cellular senescence and the mechanisms through which NANOG exerts its rejuvenating effects, the possibilities for future anti-aging treatments become increasingly tantalizing.


While we are still on the precipice of fully understanding the complexities of aging at the cellular level, this discovery brings us one step closer to unlocking the secrets of longevity and vitality. The journey toward harnessing NANOG and other similar proteins as potential therapies for age-related diseases is a testament to human ingenuity and our relentless pursuit of a healthier and longer life.

Representative picture of a heterozygous LAKI progeria mouse (LmnaG609G/+) and his WT sibling (Lmna+/+) both at the age of 10 months. (CREDIT: Science Advances Research Article)

In the not-so-distant future, we may find ourselves on the brink of revolutionary treatments that could turn back the clock on cellular aging, offering hope to countless individuals suffering from the burdens of age-related conditions.


The mythical land of Tír na nÓg, with its promise of everlasting youth, may no longer be a mere legend but a tantalizing reality on the horizon of scientific progress.

For more science news stories check out our New Discoveries section at The Brighter Side of News.


Note: Materials provided above by The Brighter Side of News. Content may be edited for style and length.


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