Researchers Find Possible ‘Fountain of Youth’ Gene

     (CN) — Scientists have discovered a gene that could protect against strokes and heart attacks and perhaps even delay aging.
     The gene, named Oct4, was previously thought to be inactive after embryonic development. But findings published Tuesday in the journal Nature indicate that it could serve as a key to delaying the onset of aging, as well as various age-related health conditions.
     The discovery could present a new avenue for preventing and avoiding such health issues, which are currently targeted individually using existing treatments.
     “Finding a way to augment the expression of this gene in adult cells may have profound implications for promoting health and possibly reversing some of the detrimental effects with aging,” study co-author and University of Virginia School of Medicine researcher Gary Owens said in a statement.
     Oct4 plays a key role in the development of all living organisms, but scientists had previously thought that it became permanently inactive following embryonic development.
     While other studies — which were considered controversial — had suggested Oct4 may have a different function later in a person’s life, the findings presented by Owens and his co-authors demonstrate that the gene plays a critical protective role during the formation of key plaques inside blood vessels.
     The team found that Oct4 controls the movement of smooth muscle cells into protective fibrous “caps” inside the plaques, which make the plaques less likely to rupture.
     Several studies have suggested that it may be possible to develop drugs or other therapeutic agents that target the Oct4 pathway in order to reduce the occurrence of stroke or heart attacks.
     “Our findings have major implications regarding possible novel therapeutic approaches for promoting stabilization of atherosclerotic plaques,” said Olga A. Cherepanova, a senior research scientist at the University of Virginia School of Medicine and co-author of the study.
     Researchers found that blocking the effect of Oct4 in mice led to atherosclerotic plaques —which can lead to heart attacks — growing larger, more dangerous and less stable, stuffed with dead cells and other damaging components.
     This discovery was surprising to the researchers, since they presumed the atherosclerotic plaques might become smaller.
     While the researchers focused on how Oct4 can protect the heart, Owens believes that the gene could also be helpful in the field of regenerative medicine, which focuses on the growth and replacement of organs and tissues.
     Oct4 was one of the stem cell pluripotency factors” described by Shinya Yamanaka, for which he received the 2012 Nobel Prize. His findings demonstrated that artificial over-expression of the gene within somatic cells grown in a lab dish is essential for successfully reprogramming these cells into induced pluripotency stem cells.
     Pluripotency stem cells are capable of developing into any cell type found in the body or even an entire organism.
     Owens’ team believes that plaque rupture and other health issues associated with aging come from a decrease in the body’s ability to reactivate Oct4.
     “We think this is just the tip of the iceberg for controlling plasticity of somatic cells, and this could impact many human diseases and the field of regenerative medicine,” Owens said. “Who knows, this may end up being the ‘fountain-of-youth gene,’ a way to revitalize old and worn-out cells. Only time will tell.”

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