Modified RNA Extends Telomeres in Human Cells, Turns Back Aging Clock

Telomere Extension Turns Back Aging Clock in Cultured Human Cells

Stanford University scientists found a new procedure to increase human telomere length, associated with aging and disease. Treated cells show youthful behavior, actively multiplying in the lab dish. Credit: Stanford University School of Medicine

Biologists from the Stanford University School of Medicine used a modified type of RNA to demonstrate a way to lengthen human telomeres by as much as 1,000 nucleotides, turning back the internal clock in these cells by the equivalent of many years of human life.

A new procedure can quickly and efficiently increase the length of human telomeres, the protective caps on the ends of chromosomes that are linked to aging and disease, according to scientists at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

Treated cells behave as if they are much younger than untreated cells, multiplying with abandon in the laboratory dish rather than stagnating or dying.

The procedure, which involves the use of a modified type of RNA, will improve the ability of researchers to generate large numbers of cells for study or drug development, the scientists say. Skin cells with telomeres lengthened by the procedure were able to divide up to 40 more times than untreated cells. The research may point to new ways to treat diseases caused by shortened telomeres.

Telomeres are the protective caps on the ends of the strands of DNA called chromosomes, which house our genomes. In young humans, telomeres are about 8,000-10,000 nucleotides long. They shorten with each cell division, however, and when they reach a critical length the cell stops dividing or dies. This internal “clock” makes it difficult to keep most cells growing in a laboratory for more than a few cell doublings.

‘Turning back the internal clock’

“Now we have found a way to lengthen human telomeres by as much as 1,000 nucleotides, turning back the internal clock in these cells by the equivalent of many years of human life,” said Helen Blau, Ph.D., professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford and director of the university’s Baxter Laboratory for Stem Cell Biology. “This greatly increases the number of cells available for studies such as drug testing or disease modeling.”

A paper describing the research was published today in the FASEB Journal. Blau, who also holds the Donald E. and Delia B. Baxter Professorship, is the senior author. Postdoctoral scholar John Ramunas, PhD, of Stanford shares lead authorship with Eduard Yakubov, PhD, of the Houston Methodist Research Institute.

The researchers used modified messenger RNA to extend the telomeres. RNA carries instructions from genes in the DNA to the cell’s protein-making factories. The RNA used in this experiment contained the coding sequence for TERT, the active component of a naturally occurring enzyme called telomerase. Telomerase is expressed by stem cells, including those that give rise to sperm and egg cells, to ensure that the telomeres of these cells stay in tip-top shape for the next generation. Most other types of cells, however, express very low levels of telomerase.

Transient effect an advantage

The newly developed technique has an important advantage over other potential methods: It’s temporary. The modified RNA is designed to reduce the cell’s immune response to the treatment and allow the TERT-encoding message to stick around a bit longer than an unmodified message would. But it dissipates and is gone within about 48 hours. After that time, the newly lengthened telomeres begin to progressively shorten again with each cell division.

The transient effect is somewhat like tapping the gas pedal in one of a fleet of cars coasting slowly to a stop. The car with the extra surge of energy will go farther than its peers, but it will still come to an eventual halt when its forward momentum is spent. On a biological level, this means the treated cells don’t go on to divide indefinitely, which would make them too dangerous to use as a potential therapy in humans because of the risk of cancer.

The researchers found that as few as three applications of the modified RNA over a period of a few days could significantly increase the length of the telomeres in cultured human muscle and skin cells. A 1,000-nucleotide addition represents a more than 10 percent increase in the length of the telomeres. These cells divided many more times in the culture dish than did untreated cells: about 28 more times for the skin cells, and about three more times for the muscle cells.

“We were surprised and pleased that modified TERT mRNA worked, because TERT is highly regulated and must bind to another component of telomerase,” said Ramunas. “Previous attempts to deliver mRNA-encoding TERT caused an immune response against telomerase, which could be deleterious. In contrast, our technique is nonimmunogenic. Existing transient methods of extending telomeres act slowly, whereas our method acts over just a few days to reverse telomere shortening that occurs over more than a decade of normal aging. This suggests that a treatment using our method could be brief and infrequent.”

Potential uses for therapy

“This new approach paves the way toward preventing or treating diseases of aging,” said Blau. “There are also highly debilitating genetic diseases associated with telomere shortening that could benefit from such a potential treatment.”

Blau and her colleagues became interested in telomeres when previous work in her lab showed that the muscle stem cells of boys with Duchenne muscular dystrophy had telomeres that were much shorter than those of boys without the disease. This finding not only has implications for understanding how the cells function — or don’t function — in making new muscle, but it also helps explain the limited ability to grow affected cells in the laboratory for study.

The researchers are now testing their new technique in other types of cells.

“This study is a first step toward the development of telomere extension to improve cell therapies and to possibly treat disorders of accelerated aging in humans,” said John Cooke, MD, Ph.D. Cooke, a co-author of the study, formerly was a professor of cardiovascular medicine at Stanford. He is now chair of cardiovascular sciences at the Houston Methodist Research Institute.

“We’re working to understand more about the differences among cell types, and how we can overcome those differences to allow this approach to be more universally useful,” said Blau, who also is a member of the Stanford Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine.

“One day it may be possible to target muscle stem cells in a patient with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, for example, to extend their telomeres. There are also implications for treating conditions of aging, such as diabetes and heart disease. This has really opened the doors to consider all types of potential uses of this therapy.”

Other Stanford co-authors of the paper are postdoctoral scholars Jennifer Brady, Ph.D., and Moritz Brandt, MD; senior research scientist Stéphane Corbel, Ph.D.; research associate Colin Holbrook; and Juan Santiago, Ph.D., professor of mechanical engineering.

The work was supported by the National Institutes of Health (grants R01AR063963, U01HL100397 U01HL099997, and AG044815), Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education and Research, Stanford Bio-X, and the Baxter Foundation.

Ramunas, Yakubov, Cooke, and Blau are inventors on patents for the use of modified RNA for telomere extension.

Information about Stanford’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology, which also supported the work, is available at

Reference: “Transient delivery of modified mRNA encoding TERT rapidly extends telomeres in human cells” by John Ramunas, Eduard Yakubov, Jennifer J. Brady, Stéphane Y. Corbel, Colin Holbrook, Moritz Brandt, Jonathan Stein, Juan G. Santiago, John P. Cooke and Helen M. Blau, 22 January 2015, FASEB.
DOI: 10.1096/fj.14-259531


3 Comments on "Modified RNA Extends Telomeres in Human Cells, Turns Back Aging Clock"

  1. I question the extension of cellular life when the basics of life extension with regard to viability in a economically supporting role (job) will likely not be available to many who have their life extended by your methods in the future. Yes, I write the above only with regard to our current situation (society, many variations around the world in 2015 ) so I want you, who have come up with a “solution” to aging in some respects, to consider your long term responsibility to human and other world kind when you release a potentially world changing method..

    I wish you luck and I wish on you the experience needed to handle this properly for all.

  2. Madanagopal.V.C. | January 28, 2015 at 5:39 am | Reply

    Of course cellular life depends on the environment and available resources for its feeding. You cannot then assume that an ant will live for 100 years if it is given plenty of the tiny food it needs. But then , it depends on the size of the living being also. Don’t we know that dinosaurs which were extremely large lived for millions of years because of their size and plenty of plant food available to them in Jurassic age. When the plant density became less, they became cannibals and carnivorous and simultaneously reduced in size also, Even today elephants rhinos and hippopotamus which are purely vegetarian lives for 100 years compared to the carnivorae like lion and tiger. Thus size of the animal is an important aspect in the longevity. However , size of the animal becomes more and more only through evolution and by extended mitosis of the cellular life where telomeres come into play. We have restricted our size and lifetime by the length of the telomeres only. Extending from 10000 nucleotides of the chromosomal caps (telomere) by another 1000 nucleotides can only increase the life span by ten percent. However, the environmental conditions for the extended life will come into play which may curtail our lifetime. Moreover we have to compete with other living beings which also struggles for their existence in nature. So more bacteria and their drug resistant mutations will pose a problem for the future mankind. We have to succeed these dangers also if we want to extend our longevity. Virus, our foremost ancestors which are neither living being nor a non-living being takes different shapes to sustain their presence and select organs of their attack in human system. Everything should balance with each other.Thank You.

  3. For life extension, take astragalus every day.

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