Scientists at Stanford University School of Medicine may have found a new route to anti-aging therapies through a new procedure that can quickly increase the length of telomeres — the caps at the ends of chromosomes that are associated with aging and disease.

In a study published in The Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), researchers found that cells treated with the procedure behaved as though they were much younger than cells that were untreated, and multiplied far more quickly and vigorously in the laboratory instead of withering away and dying. Skin cells that had their telomeres lengthened by the procedure divided up to 40 times more than untreated skin cells.

“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,” Helen Blau, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford and an author of the study, said in the press release. “This greatly increases the number of cells available for studies such as drug testing or disease modeling.”

Telomeres cap the ends of the strands of DNA known as chromosomes, and as you get older they slowly decrease in size, which causes cellular aging and our ultimate crawl towards death. Studies have shown that exercise and an overall healthy lifestyle — as well as reduced stress in life — can actually have a remarkable impact on telomeres, lengthening them and thus making a person’s lifespan longer. But lengthening telomeres in a laboratory setting could assist researchers in “disease modeling, drug screening, and regenerative medicine,” the authors write in their abstract.

The procedure involves the use of modified messenger RNA, which carries instructions from genes to the cell’s protein-making machines. The specific RNA the researchers used contained TERT, which is involved in telomerase — an enzyme that maintains telomeres and makes sure they’re ready to reproduce, and is found mainly in stem cells. The difference between this study and previous research is that this time around, the effect was extremely short-lived — the telomeres get a boost for a short time, but then begin to shorten again as cells divide. This is a good thing, because it could boost lifespan in the long run without causing cells to divide indefinitely, which has been linked to cancer.

“Previous attempts to deliver mRNA-encoding TERT caused an immune response against telomerase, which could be deleterious,” John Ramunas, a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford, said in the press release. “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.”

The authors hope that the new procedure, if developed completely, could assist in future anti-aging therapies. “This new approach paves the way toward preventing or treating diseases of aging,” Blau said in the press release. “There are also highly debilitating genetic diseases associated with telomere shortening that could benefit from such a potential treatment… 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.”

Source: Ramunas J, Yakubov E, Brady J, Corbel S, Holbrook C, Brandt M. “Transient delivery of modified mRNA encoding TERT rapidly expands telomeres in human cells.” The FASEB Journal, 2015.