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Look forever young

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Stem cells are as important as proper nutrition and exercise in maintenance of a healthy lifestyle and ageing well, says Dr. Pradeep Mahajan

While we may not be able to prevent ageing, we can definitely work towards prolonging and maintaining a healthy life span. Owing to advances in medicine and technology, life expectancy has increased significantly. Advances in the healthcare sector are not only ensuring better neonatal care, control of transmissible diseases, preventive medicine measures, precision surgeries and more, but sare also improving overall quality of life. It is estimated that by the year 2025, there will be 1.2 billion people 60 years or older.

Medical science has evolved from treatment of signs and symptoms to designing therapies based on knowledge of cellular and molecular signaling pathways. We are now able to understand mechanisms that control regeneration, repair and also degeneration of cells, tissues and organs of the body. In the context of ageing, significant research activity is underway that extrapolates the role of various regulatory pathway aberrations in an organism as age advances.

DNA, mitochondrial damage, inflammatory molecules, free radicals and reactive oxygen species have all been implicated in cell aging (senescence) and death. Human ageing has been associated with the cumulative effect of the above-mentioned factors which may result in clinical disorders or simply inability of the body to maintain systemic homeostasis.

As it is well known, inflammation is a natural response of the body to invading agents. While it is important to have defense mechanisms, with ageing, studies have shown disrupted inflammatory cues. This scrambles the delicate balance of regulatory networks necessary to govern regeneration and remodelling of tissues. Additionally, there are unavoidable environmental factors such as exposure to UV rays, bacteria and viruses, which all contribute to damage in metabolic processes of the body, thereby accelerating aging. Lifestyle also has a major influence on the rate of ageing. In urban areas, most facilities and commodities are available at the click of a button, thus lifestyle has become sedentary and nutrition and physical activity have taken a backseat. This has an adverse impact on ageing and has increased the incidence of diseases.

Levels of inflammatory mediators (cytokines such as IL-1, TNF-α) typically increase with age even in the absence of disease or stress. Chronic low-grade inflammation makes an individual vulnerable to stress in old age, which affects the immune system and subsequently weakens the individual. As it is accepted that there is no cure for ageing, it is important to understand ways to modulate effects of inflammation and impaired immunity in order to ensure healthy ageing.

‘We carry our own repairing kits in our body’ is the principle followed by us. In order to remain healthy, the body must maintain homeostasis. This is ensured by the ‘Living Drug’ molecules in our body—Stem Cells—that maintain body functions as well as repair and regenerate damaged tissues. Stem cells are as important as proper nutrition and exercise in maintenance of a healthy lifestyle. When there is a need to replace damaged or lost tissues, stem cells intervene. These ‘master molecules’ can migrate to target tissues and regenerate them. We can take cues from this principle of stem cells and utilise them in anti-ageing strategies.

Mesenchymal stem cells have anti-inflammatory properties which can aid in reducing the elevated pro-inflammatory cytokine levels that damage tissues. Subsequently, free radicals and reactive oxygen species are also eliminated by stem cells which facilitates endogenous repair. Mesenchymal stem cells also have paracrine properties through which they enhance functions of neighboring cells.

What we aim to achieve with cell-based therapy in anti-ageing is healthy ageing without overt disease and without loss of physical and cognitive function. We cannot eliminate inflammation or completely modify the immune system through cell-based therapy, but these cells can slow down cellular senescence. However, specific exercise and diet programmes must be followed to enhance the effects of therapy.

A point of debate though would be that pertaining to the source and quality of stem cells in an ageing individual. As body functions decline, it may be assumed that the pool of stem cells also reduce. Ongoing research on autologous and allogeneic source of stem cells aims to characterise specific cell types and determine their regenerative potential.

Similarly, research is also being conducted to study differences and similarities in the ageing process of somatic and stem cells.

With increasing knowledge of stem cells and their properties, apart from autologous sources, it is now possible to utilise allogeneic sources of cells such as those from the umbilical cord or a healthy donor. Other biological agents such as growth factors, which can be obtained from platelet concentrate (blood) work concomitantly with stem cells in rejuvenation of the body.

Soon we will be able to personalise anti-ageing strategies through a biomarker study of stem cells. Every individual has the right to live a long, healthy life. With cell-based therapies, this dream can become a reality!

Dr. Pradeep Mahajan is Regenerative Medicine Researcher, StemRx Bioscience Solutions Pvt. Ltd.

Short Takes

When there is a need to replace damaged or lost tissues, stem cells intervene. These ‘master molecules’ can migrate to target tissues and regenerate them.

We can take cues from this principle of stem cells and utilise them in anti-aging strategies.

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