Harvard Professor and Australian Biologist David Sinclair shares the latest research on epigenetics and aging. Read on to learn all about it.
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In this Article:
- Aging Research
- Exploring Epigenetics
- Aging and the Epigenome
- Findings from the Lab
- Epigenome Intervention Mechanics
- Potential Applications and Timeline
Aging Expert David Sinclair Shares the Latest on Epigenetics and Lifespan Extension
David Sinclair is one of the leading scientists in aging research. In Dax Shepard’s Armchair Expert Podcast, he shares the unique challenges that come with conducting aging research.
One of the biggest hurdles scientists face is the constant need to distinguish themselves from pseudoscientific anti-aging interventions. Sinclair and his team of Ph. D. students conduct controlled and systematic studies that go through a peer-review process before they’re published in top scientific journals.
Establishing the importance of studying aging in the science community has also been an uphill battle. Most traditional scientists will say that aging is a natural process and doesn’t require any intervention.
Sinclair believes that it’s important to understand the aging process not to have to wait for people to get sick before you start treating them. By studying the aging process, you can start to understand why people get sick first and offer interventions before it’s too late.
To understand aging, Sinclair and his team explore the field of epigenetics.
What is epigenetics? Epigenetics focuses on the impact of the epigenome on overall functioning. The epigenome refers to chemicals and proteins that regulate DNA function.
In the podcast, they liken DNA to a recipe with a standard set of ingredients. The epigenome then decides how the recipe will be executed. In other words, it decides which parts of the DNA will be read and which parts will be ignored.
Every cell has the full recipe, but only a certain percentage of the recipe is used in each cell. Each cell has a different program where a specific DNA pattern is activated.
Aging and the Epigenome
Sinclair believes that the epigenome holds the key to optimal health and long term survival. Over time, the epigenome accumulates defects or errors as cells replicate.
These errors can contribute to cellular malfunctioning and may be detrimental to one’s healthspan. Steve Horvath from UCLA discovered one of the defects that accumulate in DNA over time called DNA methylation.
What is DNA methylation? This refers to a process where methyl compounds are attached to DNA molecules. The level of DNA methylation is a predictor of an individual’s biological age.
Biological age refers to how well your body functions. Unlike your chronological age, there are things you can do to influence your biological age. Poor lifestyle choices can increase your biological age.
Sinclair reveals that you can actually speed up aging if you maintain an unhealthy diet, smoke, or fail to exercise regularly. He compares DNA methylation to plaque on teeth. Without proper dental care, plaque can build up and cause real damage to teeth.
One of the most liberating findings from aging research is that one’s DNA no longer dictates one’s destiny. While scientists still agree that individuals inherit a small percentage of their health and lifespan from their parents, there are lifestyle and medical interventions that can positively impact the aging process.
Findings from the Lab
Throughout the podcast, Sinclair shares some of the groundbreaking aging research findings from his lab. Here are some of them:
- They’ve been able to manipulate the biological age of eight different animals in the lab. They can accelerate and reverse the aging process by making changes in the epigenome.
- In one animal study, they induced obesity in mice. The offsprings from the obese female mice were more likely to develop diabetes than healthy female mice’s offsprings. In the next phase of the study, the researchers treated the diabetes-prone mice with longevity molecules, and it overcame the adverse effects of their mother’s diet.
- In another animal study, his student reversed the aging process in the eye of mice. The eye function of older mice was comparable to younger mice. In fact, some of the older mice even regained their eyesight. Researchers are now trying to apply these findings to help restore eyesight in humans.
- His lab was also able to make mice faster. After their interventions, the mice were able to run twice as fast. After introducing aging interventions to older mice, they ran faster than the younger ones.
The aging treatments they test in the lab builds on the work of Nobel Prize Winner Shinya Yamanaka. Yamanaka is a Japanese scientist who discovered four genes that could turn regular skin cells into embryonic stem cells.
Unfortunately, they found that you can’t just throw all four genes into a mouse and expect good results. One of Sinclair’s students eventually discovered it’s safer to use three genes instead of all four.
They call these three genes, the OSK genes. With these findings, they found a potentially safe way to turn back the hands of time.
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Epigenome Intervention Mechanics
With the isolation of the OSK genes, researchers needed to find a safe way to introduce them into a living organism. Sinclair’s team uses a safe virus to do this.
The AAV virus acts as a delivery vehicle for the OSK genes. After the virus is introduced, doses of the antibiotic doxycycline activate the gene. Once the OSK genes are activated, it serves as a reset button for DNA.
They don’t know where and how it’s stored, but initial lab findings suggest that cells have the back-up information they need to reset correctly. Experiments show that cells reset just enough to reverse the damage they’ve accumulated.
Sinclair speculates that an observer chemical or RNA may carry the back-up data cells refer to when they are prompted to reset. Eventually, he hopes that aging interventions can come in the form of affordable pills.
Potential Applications and Timeline
Aging researchers are working tirelessly to find new applications for these findings. For example, they found that turning on longevity genes in mice and horses can reverse the age of ovaries.
So, there may be new fertility interventions in the future. Other researchers are looking for ways to help prevent viral infections altogether. It may take years before the FDA approves epigenetic treatments, but Sinclair believes that they are approximately five years away from a total age reset breakthrough.
His team is about two years away from reprogramming organs like skin, liver, or kidney in terms of research. He hopes that within the next two decades, we’ll be able to reprogram large parts of the body.
What excites you the most about these new developments in the field of epigenetics? Please share them with us in the comments section below.
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