Thursday, May 9, 2013

Becoming young at heart: single protein helps old hearts appear young in mice

Researchers at Harvard University have big news today: their scientists found a protein in the blood that seems to reverse the effects of aging in the hearts of mice.

Young mice have a lot of the protein, called GDF-11, old mice less so. When they injected the protein into the blood of older mice, their hearts took on a youthful vigor. The heart walls, which thicken with age, were youthfully thin and the heart tissue otherwise looked like that of a younger animal.

Fox News quoted Dr. Amy Wagers, who was one of the lead researchers on the study.
“The older hearts really did look almost the same at a gross anatomy level. I’m certain there are still some differences, but it was quite dramatic how much rejuvenation (there was),” Wagers said.
The scientists are excited for a few reasons. One, because the mouse heart and human heart age similarly, so it’s not unlikely that similar factors control the aging in both. Also, humans do have GDF-11 in the blood. This all suggests that GDF-11 could similarly help older people be more young at heart. They'll be working toward testing this protein in clinical trials, which they expect could take 4-5 years to start.

Wagers, we should point out, is a long-time member of our grants working group that reviews our grant applications and formerly trained with CIRM grantee Irv Weissman at Stanford.

The scientists in this study looked specifically at the heart, but back when Wagers was at Stanford she and Irina Conboy, now a CIRM grantee at UC Berkeley, had found that when they exposed old mice to the blood of young mice, the muscle cells became more youthful. It turned out that the younger blood helped stem cells in the muscle respond to injury like in younger mice, but they didn't know what factor in the blood was responsible for the change. (Here's a story about that work from Stanford Medicine magazine.)

In a press release about the work, Wagers said:
“It’s been observed for many, many years that when aging occurs it affects multiple body systems sort of in a semi-synchronous way, and this suggests that there may be some common signal that drives the body’s response to getting older. We hypothesized that this common signal might be a substance that was traveling in the bloodstream, because the bloodstream accesses organs throughout the body.”
Here’s a video Harvard produced about the work, which was published May 9 in the journal Cell.



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