Victor Gomes in Nautilus:
Part of Vittorio Sebastiano’s job is to babysit a few million stem cells. The research professor of reproductive biology at Stanford University keeps the cells warm and moist deep inside the Lorry I. Lokey Stem Cell Research Building, one of the nation’s largest stem cell facilities. He’s joined there by an army of researchers, each with their own goals. His own research program is nothing if not ambitious: He wants to reverse aging in humans. Stem cells are the Gary Oldman of cell types. They can reprogram themselves to carry out the function of virtually any other type of cell, and play a vital role in early development. This functional reprogramming is usually accompanied by an age reset, down to zero. Sebastiano figures that if he can separate these different kinds of reprogramming, he can open up a whole new kind of aging therapy. Nautilus caught up with him last month.
What impact will your work have on aging research?
I’m studying whether we can separate the process of functional reprogramming of cells from the process of aging reprogramming of cells. Typically these two processes happen at the same time. My hypothesis is that we can induce cellular rejuvenation without changing the function of the cells. If we can manage to do this, we could start thinking about a way to stall aging.
What is the difference between functional and aging reprogramming?
The function of a skin cell is to express certain proteins, keratins for example that protect the skin. The function of a liver cell is to metabolize. Those are cell-specific functions. Reprogramming that function means that you no longer have a liver cell. You now have another cell, which has a totally different function. Age, on the other hand, is just the degree of usefulness of that cell, and it’s mostly an epigenetic process. A young keratinocyte cell is younger than an older keratinocyte but it is still a keratinocyte. The amazing thing is that if you take an aged cell that is fully committed to a certain function, and you transplant its nucleus into an immature egg cell called an oocyte, then you revert its function to a pluripotent, embryonic one, which means it can become any other cell of the body—and you also revert the age of that cell to the youngest age possible. It’s mind-blowing to me.