Beauty comes at any age — but there are few of us who wouldn't welcome a helping hand in holding back the years. For a long time, the precise processes behind aging have remained a mystery. Now, a breakthrough in understanding the essentials of human skin cells offers a tantalizing glimpse of potential new anti-aging treatments.
Scientists in the United Kingdom have, for the first time, identified that the activity of a key metabolic enzyme found in the batteries of human skin cells declines with age. The researchers say this specific enzyme — mitochondrial complex II — plays a key role in the skin's aging process. Mitochondria are tiny battery-like compartments within cells which, amazingly, produce more than 90% of the energy needed by the body.
Professor Mark Birch-Machin, of the Molecular Dermatology at Newcastle University, led the study along with his colleague Dr. Amy Bowman. They say their work shows how the activity of mitochondrial complex II significantly decreases in older skin. "As our bodies age," Birch-Machin says "we see that the batteries in our cells run down — known as decreased bio-energy — and harmful free radicals increase."
For the study, 27 participants, aged between 6 and 72, had their complex II activity monitored. The team took samples from an area of skin that was not generally exposed to the sun to rule out as much as possible the effects of sun-aging. This allowed them to ascertain how much of aging was down factors like the running down of mitochondrial activity.
The researchers measured the key enzymes within mitochondria involved in producing the skin cell's energy, testing cells derived from the upper (epidermis) and lower (dermis) levels of skin. "This enzyme is the hinge between the two important ways of making energy in our cells and a decrease in its activity contributes to decreased bio-energy in aging skin," says Birch-Machin.
They discovered that, in the samples they looked at, complex II activity significantly declined with age for each unit of mitochondria and that this decrease happened in the cells derived from the lower rather than the upper levels. This, they say, is directly related to a decrease in the amount of enzyme in cells that had stopped growing. This is something that has not previously been studied in human skin.
"Our study shows, for the first time," Birch-Machin says, "that with increasing age there is a specific decrease in the activity of a key metabolic enzyme found in the batteries of the skin cells. This process is easily seen in our skin as increased fine lines, wrinkles and sagging appears. You know the story, or at least your mirror does first thing in the morning!"
This discovery — published online in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology —means researchers are now closer to developing anti-aging treatments and cosmetic products that may be tailored to counteract the decline in the enzyme's activity levels and that can be specifically tailored to different aged and differently pigmented skin.
"Our research means that we now have a specific biomarker, or a target, for developing and screening anti-aging treatments and cosmetic creams that may counter this decline in bio-energy," says Birch-Machin. "Our work brings us one step closer to understanding how these vital cell structures may be contributing to human aging, with the hope of eventually specifically targeting areas of the mitochondria in an attempt to counteract the signs of aging."
The research could have far-reaching consequences beyond mere skin tone. "It has long been thought that mitochondria play an important role in the aging process," Bowman says, "however the exact role has remained unclear." Now, the team says, their findings may also lead to a greater understanding of how other organs in the body age.
According to a 2011 study the deterioration of mitochondria has been linked to "a wide range of age-related pathologies, including cancers, neurodegenerative diseases and, in general, processes that regulate cellular and organismal aging."
The new research could mean the development of drugs to treat any number of age-related diseases — including cancer. The team hope, says Birch-Machin, that as well as showing signs of hope for anti-aging cosmetics, their work has "the additional possibility to address the aging process elsewhere in our bodies."