Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Fountain of Youth Discovered in Human Cells

Anything that has to do with becoming young again is always of great interest to us. Different methods are done just to maintain the youngish look; exercise, diet, drugs, even plastic surgeries, and yet none of it stops the phase of aging. The scope of trying to cease the process of getting old and feeble is really quite impossible. But for modern scientists, they believe that there is a chance for humans to have that youthful feeling again.

Researchers from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center discovered a way to defy aging and death of human cells. The said discovery will neither reverse the age of an individual nor make one immortal, but its been claimed to prolong the healthy state of the human body through healthy cells.

Lead researcher, Dr. Jerry Shay, pointed out that their discovery is not something that will give people the ability to live longer than normal. But instead it is a process, which enables human cell to stay in its youthful condition by preventing the progress of cell aging and permanent cessation of its vital functions.

He said that by maintaining the duration of cell life and its capacity to replicate, it might be possible to regulate any abnormal state that disrupts bodily functions; such as control over diseases like skin wrinkling, blindness, cardiovascular and other disorders related to old age. Shay also stated that their research study could also lead to production of drugs that does not only prevent cell death but also has the capacity to keep functional organs of the body safe, especially those that deteriorates with old age.

Division of human cell has a definite duration and its replicating ability decrease as it ages. Therefore when we are to associate the cells of older people to that of the young ones, the cells of the latter divide more compared to the former. This is due to the action of telomeres, the key genetic elements located at the ends of chromosomes and are involved in the regulation if cell aging. Every time a normal cell divides, its telomere shortens in length.

The shortening happens because an enzyme called telomerase is shut off during the process. Turning this enzyme off occurs as part of a normal cell division, since if this is left on, it will replenish telomeres that are shortened. So without the enzyme telomerase to fill up chromosomal ends, as the normal cell repeatedly divides, the telomeres gradually shrinks.

With the telomeres becoming too short, the cell division halts and enters a state known as replicative senescence otherwise known as aging. In a word, the shorter the telomeres, the older the human age. So from this process, it is clear to see that shortening of telomeres effectively function as the "clock" of cellular aging.

The enzyme telomerase, which is normally shut off during normal cell division, is the main focus on this study. It is not only responsible for catalyzing the elongation of chromosomal telomeres, but also induces cells to keep on dividing. Normal cells do not go to this state but the cells of people with cancer do. Dr. Shay and his colleagues are trying to introduce this enzyme (telomerase) to normal cells with the aim of restoring telomere length - to reset the "clock" and thereby increasing the functional life span of the cells.

Using the telomerase produced on germ cells (such as egg and sperm cells), Shay and his team observed its activity, by injecting it (telomerase) to normal human skin cells, cells from the retina, and arteries. Sure enough they noticed that human cells with telomerase would undergo continuous cell division and allow telomeres to grow in length. "Normally, cells stop dividing after about the 70th generation, these cells are now up over 100 population doublings, and they show no evidence that they will slow down." Shay stated.

Aside from noticing cell division and telomere growth, the scientists also observed that there had been no sign of cancer cells emerging from human cells injected with telomerase.Dr. Woodring Wright, a cell biology professor involved with this discovery said, "This research raises the possibility that we could take a patient's own cells, rejuvenate them, then modify the cells as needed and give them back to the patient to treat a variety of genetic and other diseases."

The team speculated that their work could lead to possible treatment applications for macular degeneration (a common type of blindness caused by death of central retina cells), for atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), and for acceleration of wound and skin healing (especially for burn patients).

Even if this cellular fountain of youth had promising laboratory results, Shay and his team stressed out that the application of their work is still far from over, and that there had been no actual service of this technique just yet.

They also want to make it clear that this discovery is not something that will induce eternal life. As what Dr. Shay stated," This process may increase the normal health span, but not the normal life span".

It's not really bad news though, because this study will obviously bring much contribution in the near future. Even Dr. Wright is being optimistic about it. "In terms of the use of human cells, it will totally transform genetic engineering" he said. Adding that their study will be of great importance when it comes to various medical, biotechnology, and research applications - hoping for its effect to not only increase health span but at a later time, will increase life span as well.

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