|A team at the University of Edinburgh managed to rejuvenate the organ in mice by manipulating DNA. The study may have broad implications for regenerative medicine.|
Scientists have for the first time used regenerative medicine to fully restore a degenerated organ in a living animal, a discovery that could pave the way for future human therapies.
The team from the Medical Research Council (MRC) Centre for Regenerative Medicine, at the University of Edinburgh, rebuilt the thymus of very old mice by reactivating a natural mechanism that gets shut down with age.
"This interesting study suggests that organ regeneration in a mammal can be directed by manipulation of a single protein, which is likely to have broad implications for other areas of regenerative biology."
Professor Clare Blackburn from the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine, at the University of Edinburgh, who led the research, said: “By targeting a single protein, we have been able to almost completely reverse age-related shrinking of the thymus. 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. However, before we test this in humans we need to carry out more work to make sure the process can be tightly controlled.”
Researchers targeted a key part of this process – a protein called FOXN1, which helps to control how important genes in the thymus are switched on. They used genetically modified mice to enable them to increase levels of this protein using chemical signals. By doing so they managed to instruct immature cells in the thymus – similar to stem cells – to rebuild the organ in the older mice. The regenerated thymus was more than twice the size than in the untreated mice.
Dr Rob Buckle, Head of Regenerative Medicine at the MRC, said: “One of the key goals in regenerative medicine is harnessing the body’s own repair mechanisms and manipulating these in a controlled way to treat disease. This interesting study suggests that organ regeneration in a mammal can be directed by manipulation of a single protein, which is likely to have broad implications for other areas of regenerative biology.”
One of the researchers, Dr Nick Bredenkamp told the BBC, that the technique could eventually be adapted to work in people, but it would need to be "very tightly controlled" to ensure the immune system did not then go into overdrive and attack the body.
Previous attempts to provoke thymus regeneration have involved using sex hormones, but these have resulted in only temporary recovery of size and function of the organ. In this study, the recovery of the thymus was sustainable, but more work is needed to ensure there are no unintended consequences of increasing FOXN1.
The authors conclude that, "establishing that modulation of a single transcription factor is sufficient to instigate regeneration of an entire organ, our findings provide a provocative paradigm that may be of broad impact for regenerative biology strategies."
SOURCE Centre for Regenerative Medicine
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