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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
Newly combined digital pathology, artificial intelligence (AI), and omics technologies are providing anatomic pathologists and medical laboratory scientists with powerful diagnostic tools
Add “spatial transcriptomics” to the growing list of “omics” that have the potential to deliver biomarkers which can be used for earlier and more accurate diagnoses of diseases and health conditions. As with other types of omics, spatial transcriptomics might be a new tool for surgical pathologists once further studies support its use in clinical care.
Among this spectrum of omics is spatial transcriptomics, or ST for short.
Spatial Transcriptomics is a groundbreaking and powerful molecular profiling method used to measure all gene activity within a tissue sample. The technology is already leading to discoveries that are helping researchers gain valuable information about neurological diseases and breast cancer.
Marriage of Genetic Imaging and Sequencing
Spatial transcriptomics is a term used to describe a variety of methods designed to assign cell types that have been isolated and identified by messenger RNA (mRNA), to their locations in a histological section. The technology can determine subcellular localization of mRNA molecules and can quantify gene expression within anatomic pathology samples.
In “Spatial: The Next Omics Frontier,” Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News (GEN) wrote, “Spatial transcriptomics gives a rich, spatial context to gene expression. By marrying imaging and sequencing, spatial transcriptomics can map where particular transcripts exist on the tissue, indicating where particular genes are expressed.”
In an interview with Technology Networks, George Emanuel, PhD, co-founder of life-science genomics company Vizgen, said, “Spatial transcriptomic profiling provides the genomic information of single cells as they are intricately spatially organized within their native tissue environment.
“With techniques such as single-cell sequencing, researchers can learn about cell type composition; however, these techniques isolate individual cells in droplets and do not preserve the tissue structure that is a fundamental component of every biological organism,” he added.
“Direct spatial profiling the cellular composition of the tissue allows you to better understand why certain cell types are observed there and how variations in cell state might be a consequence of the unique microenvironment within the tissue,” he continued. “In this way, spatial transcriptomics allows us to measure the complexity of biological systems along the axes that are most relevant to their function.”
According to 10x Genomics, “spatial transcriptomics utilizes spotted arrays of specialized mRNA-capturing probes on the surface of glass slides. Each spot contains capture probes with a spatial barcode unique to that spot.
“When tissue is attached to the slide, the capture probes bind RNA from the adjacent point in the tissue. A reverse transcription reaction, while the tissue is still in place, generates a cDNA [complementary DNA] library that incorporates the spatial barcodes and preserves spatial information.
“Each spot contains approximately 200 million capture probes and all of the probes in an individual spot share a barcode that is specific to that spot.”
“The highly multiplexed transcriptomic readout reveals the complexity that arises from the very large number of genes in the genome, while high spatial resolution captures the exact locations where each transcript is being expressed,” Emanuel told Technology Networks.
Spatial Transcriptomics for Breast Cancer and Neurological Diagnostics
In that paper, the authors wrote “we envision that in the coming years we will see simplification, further standardization, and reduced pricing for the ST protocol leading to extensive ST sequencing of samples of various cancer types.”
Spatial transcriptomics is also being used to research neurological conditions and neurodegenerative diseases. ST has been proven as an effective tool to hunt for marker genes for these conditions as well as help medical professionals study drug therapies for the brain.
“You can actually map out where the target is in the brain, for example, and not only the approximate location inside the organ, but also in what type of cells,” Malte Kühnemund, PhD, Director of Research and Development at 10x Genomics, told Labiotech.eu. “You actually now know what type of cells you are targeting. That’s completely new information for them and it might help them to understand side effects and so on.”
The field of spatial transcriptomics is rapidly moving and changing as it branches out into more areas of healthcare. New discoveries within ST methodologies are making it possible to combine it with other technologies, such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), which could lead to powerful new ways oncologists and anatomic pathologists diagnose disease.
“I think it’s going to be tricky for pathologists to look at that data,” Kühnemund said. “I think this will go hand in hand with the digital pathology revolution where computers are doing the analysis and they spit out an answer. That’s a lot more precise than what any doctor could possibly do.”
Spatial transcriptomics certainly is a new and innovative way to look at tissue biology. However, the technology is still in its early stages and more research is needed to validate its development and results.
Nevertheless, this is an opportunity for companies developing artificial intelligence tools for analyzing digital pathology images to investigate how their AI technologies might be used with spatial transcriptomics to give anatomic pathologists a new and useful diagnostic tool.