Could epigenetic reprogramming reverse aging?
Ten thousand years ago, the average human spent a maximum of 30 years on Earth. Despite the glory of Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, most of their inhabitants didn’t surpass the age of 35. Between the 1500s and 1800, life expectancy (at least in Europe) fluctuated between 30 and 40 years.
Public health advancements like control of infectious diseases, better diet and clean sanitation, as well as social improvements have made it possible for human lifespans to double since 1800. Although lifespan differs widely today from country to country according to socioeconomic health, the average has soared to 73.2 years.
But this may turn out to be on the low side if epigenetic rejuvenation fulfills its great promise: to reverse aging, perhaps even completely. Epigenetic rejuvenation, or partial reprogramming, is the process by which a set of therapies are trying to manipulate epigenetics – how various changes can affect our genes – and the Yamanaka factors. These Yamanaka factors are a group of proteins that can convert any cell of the body into pluripotent stem cells, a group of cells that can turn into brand new cells, such as those of the brain or skin. At least in theory, it could be a recipe for self-renewal.
“Partial reprogramming tries to knock a few years off of people’s biological age, while preserving their original cell identity and function,” says Yuri Deigin, cofounder and director of YouthBio Therapeutics, a longevity startup utilizing partial reprogramming to develop gene therapies aimed at the renewal of epigenetic profiles. YouthBio plans to experiment with injecting these gene therapies into target organs. Once the cargo is delivered, a specific small molecule will trigger gene expression and rejuvenate those organs.
“Our ultimate mission is to find the minimal number of tissues we would need to target to achieve significant systemic rejuvenation,” Deigin says. Initially, YouthBio will apply these therapies to treat age-related conditions. Down the road, though, their goal is for everyone to get younger. “We want to use them for prophylaxis, which is rejuvenation that would lower disease risk,” Deigin says.
Epigenetics has swept the realm of biology off its feet over the last decade. We now know that we can switch genes on and off by tweaking the chemical status quo of the DNA’s local environment. "Epigenetics is a fascinating and important phenomenon in biology,’’ says Henry Greely, a bioethicist at Stanford Law School. Greely is quick to stress that this kind of modulation (turning genes on and off and not the entire DNA) happens all the time. “When you eat and your blood sugar goes up, the gene in the beta cells of your pancreas that makes insulin is turned on or up. Almost all medications are going to have effects on epigenetics, but so will things like exercise, food, and sunshine.”
Can intentional control over epigenetic mechanisms lead to novel and useful therapies? “It is a very plausible scenario,” Greely says, though a great deal of basic research into epigenetics is required before it becomes a well-trodden way to stay healthy or treat disease. Whether these therapies could cause older cells to become younger in ways that have observable effects is “far from clear,” he says. “Historically, betting on someone’s new ‘fountain of youth’ has been a losing strategy.”
The road to de-differentiation, the process by which cells return to an earlier state, is not paved with roses; de-differentiate too much and you may cause pathology and even death.
In 2003 researchers finished sequencing the roughly 3 billion letters of DNA that make up the human genome. The human genome sequencing was hailed as a vast step ahead in our understanding of how genetics contribute to diseases like cancer or to developmental disorders. But for Josephine Johnston, director of research and research scholar at the Hastings Center, the hype has not lived up to its initial promise. “Other than some quite effective tests to diagnose certain genetic conditions, there isn't a radical intervention that reverses things yet,” Johnston says. For her, this is a testament to the complexity of biology or at least to our tendency to keep underestimating it. And when it comes to epigenetics specifically, Johnston believes there are some hard questions we need to answer before we can safely administer relevant therapies to the population.
“You'd need to do longitudinal studies. You can't do a study and look at someone and say they’re safe only six months later,” Johnston says. You can’t know long-term side effects this way, and how will companies position their therapies on the market? Are we talking about interventions that target health problems, or life enhancements? “If you describe something as a medical intervention, it is more likely to be socially acceptable, to attract funding from governments and ensure medical insurance, and to become a legitimate part of medicine,” she says.
Johnston’s greatest concerns are of the philosophical and ethical nature. If we’re able to use epigenetic reprogramming to double the human lifespan, how much of the planet’s resources will we take up during this long journey? She believes we have a moral obligation to make room for future generations. “We should also be honest about who's actually going to afford such interventions; they would be extraordinarily expensive and only available to certain people, and those are the people who would get to live longer, healthier lives, and the rest of us wouldn't.”
That said, Johnston agrees there is a place for epigenetic reprogramming. It could help people with diseases that are caused by epigenetic problems such as Fragile X syndrome, Prader-Willi syndrome and various cancers.
Zinaida Good, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford Cancer Institute, says these problems are still far in the future. Any change will be incremental. “Thinking realistically, there’s not going to be a very large increase in lifespan anytime soon,” she says. “I would not expect something completely drastic to be invented in the next 5 to 10 years. ”
Good won’t get any such treatment for herself until it’s shown to be effective and safe. Nature has programmed our bodies to resist hacking, she says, in ways that could undermine any initial benefits to longevity. A preprint that is not yet peer-reviewed reports cellular reprogramming may lead to premature death due to liver and intestinal problems, and using the Yamanaka factors may have the potential to cause cancer, at least in animal studies.
“Side effects are an open research question that all partial reprogramming companies and labs are trying to address,” says Deigin. The road to de-differentiation, the process by which cells return to an earlier state, is not paved with roses; de-differentiate too much and you may cause pathology and even death. Deigin is exploring other, less risky approaches. “One way is to look for novel factors tailored toward rejuvenation rather than de-differentiation.” Unlike Yamanaka factors, such novel factors would never involve taking a given cell to a state in which it could turn cancerous, according to Deigin.
An example of a novel factor that could lower the risk of cancer is artificially introducing mRNA molecules, or molecules carrying the genetic information necessary to make proteins, by using electricity to penetrate the cell instead of a virus. There is also chemical-based reprogramming, in which chemicals are applied to convert regular cells into pluripotent cells. This approach is currently effective only for mice though.
“The search for novel factors tailored toward rejuvenation without de-differentiation is an ongoing research and development effort by several longevity companies, including ours,” says Deigin.
He isn't disclosing the details of his own company’s underlying approach to lowering the risk, but he’s hopeful that something will eventually end up working in humans. Yet another challenge is that, partly because of the uncertainties, the FDA hasn’t seen fit to approve a single longevity therapy. But with the longevity market projected to soar to $600 billion by 2025, Deigin says naysayers are clinging irrationally to the status quo. “Thankfully, scientific progress is moved forward by those who bet for something while disregarding the skeptics - who, in the end, are usually proven wrong.”
Friday Five: The Therapeutic Value of Bonding with Fellow Sports Fans
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on new scientific theories and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
This episode includes an interview with Dr. Helen Keyes, Head of the School of Psychology and Sports Science at Anglia Ruskin University.
Listen on Apple | Listen on Spotify | Listen on Stitcher | Listen on Amazon | Listen on Google
- Attending sports events is linked to greater life satisfaction
- Identifying specific brain tumors in under 90 seconds with AI
- LSD - minus hallucinations - raises hopes for mental health
- New research on the benefits of cold showers
- Inspire awe in your kids and reap the benefits
Matt Fuchs is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org and Making Sense of Science. He is also a contributing reporter to the Washington Post and has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, WIRED and the Washington Post Magazine, among other outlets. Follow him @fuchswriter.
Scientists and dark sky advocates team up to flip the switch on light pollution
As a graduate student in observational astronomy at the University of Arizona during the 1970s, Diane Turnshek remembers the starry skies above the Kitt Peak National Observatory on the Tucson outskirts. Back then, she could observe faint objects like nebulae, galaxies, and star clusters on most nights.
When Turnshek moved to Pittsburgh in 1981, she found it almost impossible to see a clear night sky because the city’s countless lights created a bright dome of light called skyglow. Over the next two decades, Turnshek almost forgot what a dark sky looked like. She witnessed pristine dark skies in their full glory again during a visit to the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah in early 2000s.
“I was shocked at how beautiful the dark skies were in the West. That is when I realized that most parts of the world have lost access to starry skies because of light pollution,” says Turnshek, an astronomer and lecturer at Carnegie Mellon University. In 2015, she became a dark sky advocate.
Light pollution is defined as the excessive or wasteful use of artificial light.
Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) -- which became commercially available in 2002 and rapidly gained popularity in offices, schools, and hospitals when their price dropped six years later — inadvertently fueled the surge in light pollution. As traditional light sources like halogen, fluorescent, mercury, and sodium vapor lamps have been phased out or banned, LEDs became the main source of lighting globally in 2019. Switching to LEDs has been lauded as a win-win decision. Not only are they cheap but they also consume a fraction of electricity compared to their traditional counterparts.
But as cheap LED installations became omnipresent, they increased light pollution. “People have been installing LEDs thinking they are making a positive change for the environment. But LEDs are a lot brighter than traditional light sources,” explains Ashley Wilson, director of conservation at the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). “Despite being energy-efficient, they are increasing our energy consumption. No one expected this kind of backlash from switching to LEDs.”
Light pollution impacts the circadian rhythms of all living beings — the natural internal process that regulates the sleep–wake cycle.
Currently, more than 80 percent of the world lives under light-polluted skies. In the U.S. and Europe, that figure is above 99 percent.
According to the IDA, $3 billion worth of electricity is lost to skyglow every year in the U.S. alone — thanks to unnecessary and poorly designed outdoor lighting installations. Worse, the resulting light pollution has insidious impacts on humans and wildlife — in more ways than one.
Disrupting the brain’s clock
Light pollution impacts the circadian rhythms of all living beings—the natural internal process that regulates the sleep–wake cycle. Humans and other mammals have neurons in their retina called intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells (ipRGCs). These cells collect information about the visual world and directly influence the brain’s biological clock in the hypothalamus.
The ipRGCs are particularly sensitive to the blue light that LEDs emit at high levels, resulting in suppression of melatonin, a hormone that helps us sleep. A 2020 JAMA Psychiatry study detailed how teenagers who lived in areas with bright outdoor lighting at night went to bed late and slept less, which made them more prone to mood disorders and anxiety.
“Many people are skeptical when they are told something as ubiquitous as lights could have such profound impacts on public health,” says Gena Glickman, director of the Chronobiology, Light and Sleep Lab at Uniformed Services University. “But when the clock in our brains gets exposed to blue light at nighttime, it could result in a lot of negative consequences like impaired cognitive function and neuro-endocrine disturbances.”
In the last 12 years, several studies indicated that light pollution exposure is associated with obesity and diabetes in humans and animals alike. While researchers are still trying to understand the exact underlying mechanisms, they found that even one night of too much light exposure could negatively affect the metabolic system. Studies have linked light pollution to a higher risk of hormone-sensitive cancers like breast and prostate cancer. A 2017 study found that female nurses exposed to light pollution have a 14 percent higher risk of breast cancer. The World Health Organization (WHO) identified long-term night shiftwork as a probable cause of cancer.
“We ignore our biological need for a natural light and dark cycle. Our patterns of light exposure have consequently become different from what nature intended,” explains Glickman.
Circadian lighting systems, designed to match individuals’ circadian rhythms, might help. The Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute developed LED light systems that mimic natural lighting fluxes, required for better sleep. In the morning the lights shine brightly as does the sun. After sunset, the system dims, once again mimicking nature, which boosts melatonin production. It can even be programmed to increase blue light indoors when clouds block sunlight’s path through windows. Studies have shown that such systems might help reduce sleep fragmentation and cognitive decline. People who spend most of their day indoors can benefit from such circadian mimics.
When Diane Turnshek moved to Pittsburgh, she found it almost impossible to see a clear night sky because the city’s countless lights created a bright dome of light called skyglow.
Leading to better LEDs
Light pollution disrupts the travels of millions of migratory birds that begin their long-distance journeys after sunset but end up entrapped within the sky glow of cities, becoming disoriented. A 2017 study in Nature found that nocturnal pollinators like bees, moths, fireflies and bats visit 62 percent fewer plants in areas with artificial lights compared to dark areas.
“On an evolutionary timescale, LEDs have triggered huge changes in the Earth’s environment within a relative blink of an eye,” says Wilson, the director of IDA. “Plants and animals cannot adapt so fast. They have to fight to survive with their existing traits and abilities.”
But not all types of LEDs are inherently bad -- it all comes down to how much blue light they emit. During the day, the sun emits blue light waves. By sunset, it’s replaced by red and orange light waves that stimulate melatonin production. LED’s artificial blue light, when shining at night, disrupts that. For some unknown reason, there are more bluer color LEDs made and sold.
“Communities install blue color temperature LEDs rather than redder color temperature LEDs because more of the blue ones are made; they are the status quo on the market,” says Michelle Wooten, an assistant professor of astronomy at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Most artificial outdoor light produced is wasted as human eyes do not use them to navigate their surroundings.
While astronomers and the IDA have been educating LED manufacturers about these nuances, policymakers struggle to keep up with the growing industry. But there are things they can do—such as requiring LEDs to include dimmers. “Most LED installations can be dimmed down. We need to make the dimmable drivers a mandatory requirement while selling LED lighting,” says Nancy Clanton, a lighting engineer, designer, and dark sky advocate.
Some lighting companies have been developing more sophisticated LED lights that help support melatonin production. Lighting engineers at Crossroads LLC and Nichia Corporation have been working on creating LEDs that produce more light in the red range. “We live in a wonderful age of technology that has given us these new LED designs which cut out blue wavelengths entirely for dark-sky friendly lighting purposes,” says Wooten.
Dimming the lights to see better
The IDA and advocates like Turnshek propose that communities turn off unnecessary outdoor lights. According to the Department of Energy, 99 percent of artificial outdoor light produced is wasted as human eyes do not use them to navigate their surroundings.
In recent years, major cities like Chicago, Austin, and Philadelphia adopted the “Lights Out” initiative encouraging communities to turn off unnecessary lights during birds’ peak migration seasons for 10 days at a time. “This poses an important question: if people can live without some lights for 10 days, why can’t they keep them turned off all year round,” says Wilson.
Most communities globally believe that keeping bright outdoor lights on all night increases security and prevents crime. But in her studies of street lights’ brightness levels in different parts of the US — from Alaska to California to Washington — Clanton found that people felt safe and could see clearly even at low or dim lighting levels.
Clanton and colleagues installed LEDs in a Seattle suburb that provided only 25 percent of lighting levels compared to what they used previously. The residents reported far better visibility because the new LEDs did not produce glare. “Visual contrast matters a lot more than lighting levels,” Clanton says. Additionally, motion sensor LEDs for outdoor lighting can go a long way in reducing light pollution.
Flipping a switch to preserve starry nights
Clanton has helped draft laws to reduce light pollution in at least 17 U.S. states. However, poor awareness of light pollution led to inadequate enforcement of these laws. Also, getting thousands of counties and municipalities within any state to comply with these regulations is a Herculean task, Turnshek points out.
Fountain Hills, a small town near Phoenix, Arizona, has rid itself of light pollution since 2018, thanks to the community's efforts to preserve dark skies.
Until LEDs became mainstream, Fountain Hills enjoyed starry skies despite its proximity to Phoenix. A mountain surrounding the town blocks most of the skyglow from the city.
“Light pollution became an issue in Fountain Hills over the years because we were not taking new LED technologies into account. Our town’s lighting code was antiquated and out-of-date,” says Vicky Derksen, a resident who is also a part of the Fountain Hills Dark Sky Association founded in 2017. “To preserve dark skies, we had to work with the entire town to update the local lighting code and convince residents to follow responsible outdoor lighting practices.”
Derksen and her team first tackled light pollution in the town center which has a faux fountain in the middle of a lake. “The iconic centerpiece, from which Fountain Hills got its name, had the wrong types of lighting fixtures, which created a lot of glare,” adds Derksen. They then replaced several other municipal lighting fixtures with dark-sky-friendly LEDs.
The results were awe-inspiring. After a long time, residents could see the Milky Way with crystal clear clarity. Star-gazing activities made a strong comeback across the town. But keeping light pollution low requires constant work.
Derksen and other residents regularly measure artificial light levels in
Fountain Hills. Currently, the only major source of light pollution is from extremely bright, illuminated signs which local businesses had installed in different parts of the town. While Derksen says it is an uphill battle to educate local businesses about light pollution, Fountain Hills residents are determined to protect their dark skies.
“When a river gets polluted, it can take several years before clean-up efforts see any tangible results,” says Derksen. “But the effects are immediate when you work toward reducing light pollution. All it requires is flipping a switch.”