’Benjamin Button’ discovery could reverse ageing process
A world-first light bulb moment discovery by a modest Queensland scientist could deliver the ultimate gift in modern science - a way to reverse the ageing process.
On a lab bench at the University of Queensland, Professor Justin Cooper-White, a chemical engineer, is working on an incredible project that will one day help peel back the years and allow older people to live a more youthful, active life and ultimately look younger.
This Benjamin Button-effect is just one of the areas of regenerative science that will change the world of healthcare.
"It's fantastical to think that a 70 year old will suddenly have the youth of a 20 year old that's not going to happen but there is very real evidence that it will be possible to slow ageing and revert cells in the body that are "frustrated" due to age into more calm cells that will allow easier movement, better breathing and faster healing," Prof Cooper-White said.
"I can't say that people will look younger but it's possible. When a person is active and living life to the full they generally look better. The focus is not necessarily about prolonging life span, it's more about prolonging health span. Our work is not a silver bullet, exercise and nutrition will all play a part," he said.
Prof Cooper-White made the discovery that body tissues are not just elastic and solid but also work a bit like a liquid and now his team is investigating how the viscoelasticity of bodies change over time and ways to reverse the process.
"Viscoelasticity describes the way materials, like our skin, muscles, bones or even our organs, respond to being 'stressed', through pushing, pulling or shearing, the forces that our tissues experience in everyday life," he said.
"All tissues in the body are viscoelastic - it is an intrinsic property of them. We age because our body gets less viscoelastic. This is something we are focusing on now. Maybe it's just because I am getting older. As we age, daily ailments cause inflammation. Inflammation in one area is carried around the whole body by our blood vessels, causing the extracellular matrix of all our tissues to become stiff and corrupted, or 'fibrotic'. This corrupts the stem cell 'niches', the homes of stem cells that live next to our blood vessels," he said.
"We're investigating what happens when those tissues become less viscoelastic and how we might reverse that," Professor Cooper-White said.
Since the scientist and his team from UQ's Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (AIBN) unit first flagged the importance of viscoelasticity on stem cell behaviours in 2011, researchers around the world have been working to confirm those findings and probe other related mechanical properties of cells, building an in-depth body of knowledge that can be used to inform biological, medical and engineering research.
"We have been working on the ageing area for the last four or five years and making progress," the professor said.
Late this year Prof Cooper-White joined the world's top tissue engineering experts from Stanford University, Harvard University and University of Pennsylvania to review the works investigating viscoelasticity.
The latest research in their field was published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature.
"There is a lot of work to be done and I would estimate we are talking at least a couple of decades before therapeutics would even be available. We would have to look at trials in small animals, larger animals and then human trials. But this is very important science. We are looking at a future where Australia will have a very high percentage of older people. It would make sense for more investment to be put into allowing older people to live life to the full and have a long health span. Doesn't that make more sense that putting all the money into programs to look after people after they end up decrepit?" the chemical engineer said.
"This has not come to the public eye as much as I would have expected it to, given how important it is," the professor said.
It is predicted that almost one quarter of Australians will be over 65 by June 2050 and other countries will have an even bigger aged population.
"We are not talking about offering the fountain of life but regenerative science is a key area of research for the future. It's exciting what we have found so far," Prof Cooper-White said. Leading them into work in engineering of healthy ageing with stem cells, the team at UQ works on artificially creating new tissue like recreating breast tissue for women who have had a mastectomy. It was this work into body tissues that lead to the professor's world stopping discovery in regenerative medicine.
Originally published as 'Benjamin Button' discovery could reverse ageing process