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The Making of Medicine

How We Could Reverse Aging Using Viruses

Our Irina Bochkis, PhD, has made a discovery that suggests we could cure or prevent fatty liver disease, diabetes and other metabolic diseases — and possibly even reverse aging itself — by removing wrinkles inside our cells.

Much as our skin wrinkles with age, so does the membrane surrounding our cells’ nuclei, the compartment containing our DNA. Dr. Bochkis’ work suggests that this prevents genes from being turned off properly. That can create big problems, as every cell contains the same set of genes. The difference in a brain cell and a liver cell is determined by which genes are turned off.

Dr. Bochkis, of our Department of Pharmacology, made the discovery while studying a model of fatty liver disease. Her work suggests that the fat deposits that form in many people’s livers over time are the result of improper gene deactivation. Cells that are supposed to be liver cells lose their genetic blueprint and turn into fat cells. If we could fix that, we could stop or reverse the disease. By smoothing out the wrinkly membrane, she said “you’re going to have normal cells – normal, healthy cells – and they will appropriately express the genes that should be expressed and … you’re going to eradicate the stuff that shouldn’t be there.”

But how would we fix wrinkly nuclear membranes? Dr. Bochkis has a plan: We’d use viruses to carry proteins called lamins to the cells. The membrane wrinkling, you see, is caused by the loss of lamins over time. Put back the appropriate lamins and you might just fix the problem. It would be especially easy to target the liver, she thinks, because of the organ’s role in detoxifying the body, including — wait for it — removing viruses.

Cool, huh? Dr. Bochkis is very early in her career, and if, all goes well, this should keep her busy for many years to come.

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