For older adults, a stem cell-based therapy could be a way to restore strength to damaged skeletal muscles in the hip area, throat, or eye—muscles that support functions such as sitting, standing, blinking, and swallowing. (Credit: Michael May/Flickr)

aging

Can stem cells make old muscles strong again?

Skeletal muscles are some of the most important muscles in the body, supporting functions such as sitting, standing, blinking, and swallowing. As people age, the function of these muscles significantly decreases.

“You lose fifteen percent of muscle mass every single year after the age of 75, a trend that is irreversible,” says Penney Gilbert, assistant professor at the Institute of Biomaterials & Biomedical Engineering (IBBME) and the Donnelly Centre for Cellular & Biomolecular Research (CCBR) at the University of Toronto.

A new study published in the journal Nature Medicine shows that during aging a subpopulation of stem cells begin to express a modification of a protein that inhibits their ability to grow and make new stem cells.

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“But if we instead treated those cells outside the body with a drug that prevented that protein modification from occurring, in combination with culturing the cells on something soft that is reminiscent of soft skeletal tissue, like a hydrogel biomaterial, the combination allowed the aged cells to grow and make more copies of themselves,” says Gilbert.

The rejuvenated cell cultures were transplanted into injured and aged tissues, with remarkable results: the transplanted cells returned strength to the damaged and aged tissues to levels matching a young, healthy state.

Not a panacea for aging

“We’ve now shown that muscle stem cells progressively lose their stem cell function during aging,” says postdoctoral researcher Ben Cosgrove. “This treatment does not turn the clock back on dysfunctional stem cells in the aged population. Rather, it stimulates stem cells from old muscle tissues that are still functional to begin dividing and self-renewing.”

“An important thing to stress here is that this is not a panacea for aging in general,” says lead author Professor Helen Blau.

The stem cell treatment would only be used to repair localized defects in relatively small muscles found in the hip area, the throat, or the muscles in the eye.

One of the significant challenges to elderly individuals who receive hip transplants, for instance, is the challenge of repairing skeletal muscles around the hip joint injured during surgery. The study points to the potential for future post-surgery therapies that could leave hip replacement patients spry in a fraction of the time.

“Even a small, localized transplantation could have a huge impact on quality of life,” Blau says. “One big advantage is that because the cells would come from the person’s own muscles there would be no problem with an immune response.”

Source: University of Toronto

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