Scientists studying Werner Syndrome, a rare disorder that causes sufferers to age prematurely, have discovered a genetic fault that could unlock the DNA formations behind cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s.
Researchers from Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, and the Chinese Academy of Science found the Werner genetic fault leads to tightly packed bundles of DNA in human cells – known as heterochromatin – becoming disorganised.
How our DNA cell structures collapse may explain why some people age more quickly than others, i.e. the more they deteriorate, the more of a role these cells play in the ageing process.
New studies will focus on how to slow or reverse the process of ageing, and how that could have an impact on our health as we age.
According to the study, published in the journal Science, scientists claim it might be possible the disruption of the heterochromatin may play a role in age-related diseases like some cancers, diabetes and dementia.
The researchers used cells taken from patients suffering from Werner syndrome, also known as adult progeria.
One of the lead authors of the study, Professor Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, said: “Our findings show that the gene mutation that causes Werner syndrome results in the disorganisation of heterochromatin, and that this disruption of normal DNA packaging is a key driver of ageing.
“More broadly, it suggests that accumulated alterations in the structure of heterochromatin may be a major underlying cause of cellular ageing.
“This begs the question of whether we can reverse these alterations – like remodelling an old house or car – to prevent, or even reverse, age-related declines and diseases”.
This could be a major breakthrough as Werner syndrome affects one in every 100,000 births and leads to premature death. Until now, scientists have not been able to stop the accelerated ageing process.
Progeria is a unique albeit insidious disease as it replicates what happens later in life but at a much earlier age – growth retardation, wrinkling, premature greying of hair, cardiovascular problems, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis and some rare cancers.
So now, Professor Belmonte, together with colleagues from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, are using cloning techniques to produce embryonic stem cells with DNA from people with progeria.
These researcher are now well on their way to slow down or reverse the cellular process that cause people to get “old”.
Professor Belmonte said: “This has implications beyond Werner syndrome, as it identifies a central mechanism of ageing – heterochromatin disorganisation – which has been shown to be reversible”.
So tell us today: If you could change your DNA to stop the affects of ageing, would you? What age would you like to freeze yourself at?