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Sep 22, 2011Science and Technology
Live longer, grow younger — courtesy of new stem cell research

It is said that a living organism is as old as its stem cells. And a research group led by the Buck Institute for Research on Aging and the Georgia Institute of Technology has shown that they can reverse the aging process for human adult stem cells. The research group conducted a study in cell culture and revealed the undesirable events taking place in stem cells that make the biological clock tick faster and irreversibly. This advancement could be the key link toward finding cures for many age-related diseases.

The first task in this process was to have a thorough understanding of the aging process of stem cells. If scientists could understand well the molecules and processes that make it possible for human adult stem cells to initiate regeneration and to divide, multiply rapidly and differentiate to rejuvenate damaged tissue, this understanding might allow for a turning point in the field of regenerative medicine.

What are stem cells?

Stem cells are those special cells in the human body that can continue dividing forever and transform into other types of cells, such as muscle, bone or even cartilage. Because of these unique characteristics, they have the potential to assist in the treatment of many dreadful diseases, such as cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s.

What causes aging?

When the damaged tissues of the human body are not replaced by new, healthier tissues, aging occurs. Adult stem cells play a pivotal role here because they help keep human tissues healthy by replacing cells that have gotten old and damaged. Further, they can grow and replace any number of body cells in the tissue or organ to which they belong. However, adult stem cells also undergo age-related damage. And when this happens, the body loses its ability to replace damaged tissue as well as before. This automatically invites certain diseases and conditions. But scientists at the Buck Institute seem to have found a way to keep these adult stem cells young.

It is known that a major cause for adult stem cell aging was due to parts of the genome known as retrotransposons. By suppressing the accumulation of toxic transcripts from retrotransposons that play an important role in genome regulation, the scientists were able to revive the aged human stem cells.

Victoria Lunyak, Associate Professor at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, said that they "were able to reverse the process of aging for human adult stem cells by intervening with the activity of non-protein coding RNAs originated from genomic regions that were once dismissed as non-functional 'genomic junk.'" What is interesting is that they could possibly use these cells' work to heal wounds, correct metabolic disorders and even repair damaged heart tissue after a heart attack and produce insulin for patients with type 1 diabetes, among other uses.

Stem cells and patentability

Being one of the most controversial areas of patent laws, stem cells have often caused tremors on the issue of patentability. Since product patents mostly result in a "no-no" kind of a reaction from patent offices, applicants try to find safe haven in process patents, which are difficult to refuse. Nonetheless, numerous patent applicants, both for product as well as process patents, are queued before the patent office, awaiting approval, and few debatable grants have made the news.

The recent research results also come out from a process applied to the activity of non-protein coding RNAs originated from genomic regions. So, do we really have a winning anti-aging formula?

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