The key ingredient for a ‘fountain of youth’ drug may be found in blood from human umbilical cords, a study suggests. Researchers identified a protein, commonly found in the cord, which becomes decreasingly present in our blood as we age. They believe the discovery of the protein, called TIMP2, could lead to new treatments for age associated decline in mental abilities such as Alzheimer’s disease. The US researchers found that injections of human cord blood helped to rejuvenate the cognitive functions of elderly mice, boosting their performance in a series of memory and learning tests.
Previously the team from Stanford University School of Medicine had found that an injection of blood plasma from young mice into old mice had passed on various mental benefits. The researchers believe TIMP2 affects a part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is critical for converting experiences into long-term memories.
Senior author, Dr Tony Wysschray, a professor of neurology and neurological sciences, said: ‘For largely unknown reasons, the hippocampus is especially vulnerable to normal ageing. With advancing age, the hippocampus degenerates, loses nerve cells and shrinks. Hippocampal deterioration is an early manifestation of Alzheimer’s disease.’
Umbilical cord stem cells have previously been found to replenish the body’s blood and immune systems and treat a number of illnesses, including a range of cancers and genetic diseases. In the study, elderly mice were injected with either blood plasma collected from the umbilical cord of new born babies, plasma from young adults, plasma from the elderly or a placebo.
Among the mice who were given cord blood plasma every fourth day for three weeks, many measures of hippocampal function improved, notably with their performance in mazes and other tests being stellar compared to the placebo group.
Cells in their hippocampus were also found to express genes that caused neurones to form more connections in the brain. Plasma from older people on the other hand did not help at all, while young adult plasma induced an intermediate effect. The team believe the key ingredient that makes cord blood so rejuvenating is TIMP2. When they injected TIMP2 into elderly mice, it largely duplicated the beneficial effects of cord plasma according to the findings published in the journal Nature.
Co-author Dr Joseph Castellano said: ‘TIMP2’s effects in the brain have been studied little but not much and not in ageing. In our study it mimicked the memory and learning effects we were getting with cord plasma. And it appeared to do that by improving hippocampal function. Scientists now hope future trials involving the protein would show a similar effect in reversing the consequences of ageing in humans.’
Recently, Professor Robert Howard of UCL’s Old Age Psychiatry and Psychopathology Department, said: ‘This work will stimulate a clear pathway to human clinical trials of what should be a safe and well tolerated agent.’
Dr Jennifer Wild, a senior research fellow in clinical psychology at Oxford University, said: ‘The results are exciting but I would urge caution when extending the findings to humans. The study shows that the human protein can reverse cognitive ageing mice. This does not mean that the protein can cure dementia or cognitive ageing in humans.’ She added that similar studies in mice ‘with dementia-like symptoms’ had not yet translated into cures for humans.
As is common, early researchers tend to give the brighter side of the equation but that does not also mean that progression should be halted if caution is taken into account.