Gene editing can reverse balding and wrinkling in mice — and maybe humans, too

From the potential 3D bioprinting of organs for transplants to ultra-ambitious attempts to upload human consciousness into a computer, there are plenty of tech-heavy initiatives aimed at extending life spans way beyond what is currently possible. Researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham added one more fascinating breakthrough to this mission: Finding a way to reverse wrinkled skin and hair loss — both hallmarks of the aging process — in mice. Using gene editing, they were able to reverse an artificially induced aging process in a way that could one day be used to counteract the effects of, well, actually getting old.

“Decline in mitochondrial DNA content and mitochondrial function has been observed in aging humans,” Keshav Singh, a professor of Genetics, Pathology and Environmental Health, told Digital Trends. “We created [a] mouse to mimic those condition to show that decline in mitochondrial function leads to development of wrinkles and loss of hair. The main finding is that by restoring mitochondrial function, we can reverse skin wrinkles to normal healthy skin and also regain hair growth.”

For their study, the scientists carried out a two-month mitochondrial DNA depletion process, essentially robbing the mouse’s body of its ability to convert the energy from food into something its cells can use. As a result, the mouse developed wrinkled skin and visible hair loss, both of which are effects of the normal aging process. When they later restored mitochondrial function by turning off the gene responsible for the mitochondrial dysfunction, the mouse’s smooth skin and thick fur returned. Following the experiment, the mouse was indistinguishable from any other healthy mouse the same age.

The researchers believe these results could be used be applied to humans in the future. As Singh noted, humans experience a decline in mitochondrial function as they age. In addition to changing skin and hair loss, this may also help drive diseases including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, age-associated neurological disorders, and certain cancers.

“We are [currently] developing agents which can restore mitochondrial function in aging individuals so wrinkles do not develop, [as well as protecting] loss of hair,” Singh continued. “Further, it may improve quality of life in old age.” The most immediate goal, he said, is to find a way to help cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, who lose their hair as a result of the treatment.

A paper describing the research was recently published in the journal Cell Death & Disease.

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