Scientists make old muscles young again in attempt to combat ageing
27 September 2012
Researchers at King's College London, Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital have identified for the first time a key factor responsible for declining muscle repair during ageing, and discovered how to halt the process in mice with a common drug.
Although an early study, the finding provides clues as to how muscles lose mass with age, which can result in weakness that affects mobility and may cause falls.
Published in the journal Nature, and funded by the Biotechnology, and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), Harvard Stem Cell Institute and National Institutes of Health (US), the study looked at stem cells found inside muscle - which are responsible for repairing injury - to find out why the ability of muscles to regenerate declines with age.
A dormant reservoir of stem cells is present inside every muscle, ready to be activated by exercise and injury to repair any damage. When needed, these cells divide into hundreds of new muscle fibres that repair the muscle. At the end of the repairing process some of these cells also replenish the pool of dormant stem cells so that the muscle retains the ability to repair itself again and again.
The researchers carried out a study on 'old' mice and found the number of dormant stem cells present in the pool reduces with age, which could explain the decline in the muscle's ability to repair and regenerate as it gets older. When these old muscles were screened the team found high levels of FGF2, a protein that has the ability to stimulate cells to divide. While encouraging stem cells to divide and repair muscle is a normal and crucial process, they found that FGF2 could also awaken the dormant pool of stem cells even when they were not needed. The continued activation of dormant stem cells meant the pool was depleted over time, so when the muscle really needed stem cells to repair itself the muscle was unable to respond properly.
Following this finding, the researchers attempted to inhibit FGF2 in old muscles to prevent the stem cell pool from being kick-started into action unnecessarily. By administering a common FGF2 inhibitor drug they were able to inhibit the decline in the number of muscle stem cells in the mice.
Dr Albert Basson, Senior Lecturer from the Department of Craniofacial Development and Stem Cell Biology at the King's College London Dental Institute, said: "Preventing or reversing muscle wasting in old age in humans is still a way off, but this study has for the first time revealed a process which could be responsible for age-related muscle wasting, which is extremely exciting.
"The finding opens up the possibility that one day we could develop treatments to make old muscles young again. If we could do this, we may be able to enable people to live more mobile, independent lives as they age."
Dr Andrew Brack, senior and corresponding author of the study from Harvard University, said: "Analogous to the importance of recovery for athletes training for a sporting event, we now know that it is essential for adult stem cells to 'rest' between bouts of expenditure. Preventing stem cell recuperation leads to their eventual demise."
Kieran Jones, co-author of the study from King's, added: "We do not yet know how or why levels of the protein FGF2 increase with age, triggering stem cells to be activated when they are not needed. This is something that needs to be explored.
"The next step is to analyse old muscle in humans to see if the same mechanism could be responsible for stem cell depletion in human muscle fibres, leading to loss of mass and wastage."
About King's College London
King's College London is one of the top 30 universities in the world (2011/12 QS World University Rankings), and the fourth oldest in England. A research-led university based in the heart of London, King's has nearly 23,500 students (of whom more than 9,000 are graduate students) from nearly 140 countries, and some 6,000 employees. King's is in the second phase of a £1 billion redevelopment programme which is transforming its estate.
King's has an outstanding reputation for providing world-class teaching and cutting-edge research. In the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise for British universities, 23 departments were ranked in the top quartile of British universities; over half of our academic staff work in departments that are in the top 10 per cent in the UK in their field and can thus be classed as world leading. The College is in the top seven UK universities for research earnings and has an overall annual income of nearly £450 million.
King's has a particularly distinguished reputation in the humanities, law, the sciences (including a wide range of health areas such as psychiatry, medicine, nursing and dentistry) and social sciences including international affairs. It has played a major role in many of the advances that have shaped modern life, such as the discovery of the structure of DNA and research that led to the development of radio, television, mobile phones and radar. It is the largest centre for the education of healthcare professionals in Europe; no university has more Medical Research Council Centres.
King's College London and Guy's and St Thomas', King's College Hospital and South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trusts are part of King's Health Partners. King's Health Partners Academic Health Sciences Centre (AHSC) is a pioneering global collaboration between one of the world's leading research-led universities and three of London's most successful NHS Foundation Trusts, including leading teaching hospitals and comprehensive mental health services. For more information, visit: www.kingshealthpartners.org.
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