Researchers at the University of Edinburgh showed this week that they could teach an old mouse's thymus to bounce back to a healthy, youthful state, simply by manipulating a single protein that controls gene expression. It's the first time scientists have been able to regenerate a living organ by gene manipulation, and it could have huge implications in health science.
The research, published in this month's issue of the journal Development, showed that reactivating one step in the thymus's development process could restart the type of organ regeneration that usually ends after youth. Specifically, the researchers targeted the gene that controls production of the protein FOXN1. Higher concentrations of that protein drove the organ back to its youthful state.
This result is particularly promising in that the thymus is a crucial part of the immune system, but in both mice and humans it shuts down with age. Since this organ is involved in the production of white blood cells, its age-related deterioration contributes to increased susceptibility to infection in the elderly.
Since the thymus works pretty much identically in mice and humans, there's hope that the technique used in the study could work in a medical setting. "Our results suggest that targeting the same pathway in humans may improve thymus function and therefore boost immunity in elderly patients, or those with a suppressed immune system," said Dr. Clare Blackburn, who contributed to the study. "However, before we test this in humans we need to carry out more work to make sure the process can be tightly controlled."
Unlike techniques that use medication or artificial processes to blunt the effects of ageing, the promise of this technique is that it harnesses the body's own built-in regenerative power to send an organ back to its more resilient, youthful state. That's the ideal behind regenerative medicine, and if this advance works reliably it will be huge for mankind.