Findings could lead to deeper understanding of why we age, and to medical laboratory tests and treatments to slow or even reverse aging
Can humans control aging by keeping their genes long and balanced? Researchers at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, believe it may be possible. They have unveiled a “previously unknown mechanism” behind aging that could lead to medical interventions to slow or even reverse aging, according to a Northwestern news release.
Should additional studies validate these early findings, this line of testing may become a new service clinical laboratories could offer to referring physicians and patients. It would expand the test menu with assays that deliver value in diagnosing the aging state of a patient, and which identify the parts of the transcriptome that are undergoing the most alterations that reduce lifespan.
It may also provide insights into how treatments and therapies could be implemented by physicians to address aging.
The Northwestern University scientists published their findings in the journal Nature Aging title, “Aging Is Associated with a Systemic Length-Associated Transcriptome Imbalance.”
“I find it very elegant that a single, relatively concise principle seems to account for nearly all of the changes in activity of genes that happen in animals as they change,” Thomas Stoeger, PhD, postdoctoral scholar in the Amaral Lab who led the study, told GEN. Clinical laboratories involved in omics research may soon have new anti-aging diagnostic tests to perform. (Photo copyright: Amaral Lab.)
Possible ‘New Instrument’ for Biological Testing
Researchers found clues to aging in the length of genes. A gene transcript length reveals “molecular-level changes” during aging: longer genes relate to longer lifespans and shorter genes suggest shorter lives, GEN summarized.
The phenomenon the researchers uncovered—which they dubbed transcriptome imbalance—was “near universal” in the tissues they analyzed (blood, muscle, bone, and organs) from both humans and animals, Northwestern said.
According to the National Human Genome Research Institute fact sheet, a transcriptome is “a collection of all the gene readouts (aka, transcript) present in a cell” shedding light on gene activity or expression.
The Northwestern study suggests “systems-level” changes are responsible for aging—a different view than traditional biology’s approach to analyzing the effects of single genes.
“We have been primarily focusing on a small number of genes, thinking that a few genes would explain disease,” said Luis Amaral, PhD, Senior Author of the Study and Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Northwestern, in the news release.
“So, maybe we were not focused on the right thing before. Now that we have this new understanding, it’s like having a new instrument. It’s like Galileo with a telescope, looking at space. Looking at gene activity through this new lens will enable us to see biological phenomena differently,” Amaral added.
In their Nature Aging paper, Amaral and his colleagues wrote, “We hypothesize that aging is associated with a phenomenon that affects the transcriptome in a subtle but global manner that goes unnoticed when focusing on the changes in expression of individual genes.
“We show that transcript length alone explains most transcriptional changes observed with aging in mice and humans,” they continued.
Researchers Turn to AI, RNA Sequencing
According to their published study, the Northwestern University scientists used large datasets, artificial intelligence (AI), and RNA (ribonucleic acid) sequencing in their analysis of tissue derived from:
- Humans (men and women), age 30 to 49, 50 to 69, and 70 years and older.
- Mice, age four months to 24 months.
- Rats, age six to 24 months.
- Killifish, age five weeks to 39 weeks.
Scientific American reported the following study findings:
- In tissues studied, older animals’ long transcripts were not as “abundant” as short transcripts, creating “imbalance.”
- “Imbalance” likely prohibited the researchers’ discovery of a “specific set of genes” changing.
- As animals aged, shorter genes “appeared to become more active” than longer genes.
- In humans, the top 5% of genes with the shortest transcripts “included many linked to shorter life spans such as those involved in maintaining the length of telomeres.”
- Conversely, the researchers’ review of the leading 5% of genes in humans with the longest transcripts found an association with long lives.
- Antiaging drugs—rapamycin (aka, sirolimus) and resveratrol—were linked to an increase in long-gene transcripts.
“The changes in the activity of genes are very, very small, and these small changes involve thousands of genes. We found this change was consistent across different tissues and in different animals. We found it almost everywhere,” Thomas Stoeger, PhD, postdoctoral scholar in the Amaral Lab who led the study, told GEN.
In their paper, the Northwestern scientists noted implications for creation of healthcare interventions.
“We believe that understanding the direction of causality between other age-dependent cellular and transcriptomic changes and length-associated transcriptome imbalance could open novel research directions for antiaging interventions,” they wrote.
Other ‘Omics’ Studies
In “Spatial Transcriptomics Provide a New and Innovative Way to Analyze Tissue Biology, May Have Value in Surgical Pathology,” we explored how newly combined digital pathology, artificial intelligence (AI), and omics technologies are providing anatomic pathologists and medical laboratory scientists with powerful diagnostic tools.
In “Swiss Researchers Develop a Multi-omic Tumor Profiler to Inform Clinical Decision Support and Guide Precision Medicine Therapy for Cancer Patients,” we looked at how new biomarkers for cancer therapies derived from the research could usher in superior clinical laboratory diagnostics that identify a patient’s suitability for personalized drug therapies and treatments.
And in “Human Salivary Proteome Wiki Developed at University of Buffalo May Provide Biomarkers for New Diagnostic Tools and Medical Laboratory Tests,” we covered how proteins in human saliva make up its proteome and may be the key to new, precision medicine diagnostics that would give clinical pathologists new capabilities to identify disease.
Fountain of Youth
While more research is needed to validate its findings, the Northwestern study is compelling as it addresses a new area of transcriptome knowledge. This is another example of researchers cracking open human and animal genomes and gaining new insights into the processes supporting life.
For clinical laboratories and pathologists, diagnostic testing to reverse aging and guide the effectiveness of therapies may one day be possible—kind of like science’s take on the mythical Fountain of Youth.
—Donna Marie Pocius