Sounds like a strange question, but in cases where people, thankfully, blessedly, live to a ripe old age, free of diseases, why do they ever die? How come they can’t just keep on living forever? And do scientists believe that stem cells play a role? Death may not the most upbeat topic to blog about, but recent studies reveal some optimistic results about the ageing process and the potential role umbilical cord blood may play in mitigating its impact.
Why do we die of old age?
Stem cells may be the closest we come to a fountain of youth
Scientists studied blood and tissue samples from Hendrikje van Andel–Schipper, who, at 115 years of age at the time of her death, was the oldest woman in the world. She was remarkably healthy in her old age, enjoying a disease-free life until she died. According to her wish, her body was donated to science, and this helped scientists collect her blood and tissue samples in order to study how old age affects the body. The results indicate that people die of old age due to exhaustion of the same type of stem cells found abundantly in cord blood.
Some scientists believe that replenishing these stem cells may result in making death no longer inevitable. This may sound like the stuff of movies, but their findings published in New Scientist are anything but science fiction. Henne Holstege of the VU University Medical Center in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, explains in the article that we are born with approximately 20,000 blood stem cells. At any given time, approximately 1,000 of these stem cells are simultaneously actively replenishing blood.
During one’s life, this number of active stem cells shrinks and their telomeres (the caps at the end of each strand of DNA that protect our chromosomes) shorten to the point at which they die. This is called stem cell exhaustion. With regard to Andel–Schipper, it was found that the telomeres of her white blood cells, were drastically worn down at the time of her death.
Can we reverse ageing?
This phenomenon led Holstege to ask himself, Can you get around that by replenishment with cells saved from earlier in your life?
What stem cells would be better for replenishment than those in umbilical cord blood, the earliest possible source? Cord blood banks cryopreserve these special stem cells for potential use later in life. What’s unique about the stem cells found in umbilical cord blood is that they are privileged. Unlike the blood stem cells found in bone marrow from an adult, cord blood stem cells are unexposed to most diseases. They are also immunologically immature. In laymen’s terms, this means that cord blood stem cells are not trained to function in a certain way, so they are more accepting to other cells of a body. And they are easily collected with no risk to the mother or baby.
In fact, Holstege says the earlier the stem cells’ origins, the greater they stand to be substantially free of mutations and have full-length telomeres. The study results raise the possibility of rejuvenating ageing bodies with cord blood infusions.
“If I took a sample now and gave it back to myself when I’m older, I would have long telomeres again,” writes Holstege.
Tests on extending lifespan in animals
Another recent study appearing in Stem Cells Translational Medicine in August 2015 actually tests the notions raised by Holstege. The study was conducted by researchers in Korea:
"It has been suggested that exhaustion of stem cells may be a major cause of aging in humans," said Dr. Yun-Bae Kim, D.V.M., Ph.D., at Chungbuk National University's College of Veterinary Medicine.
His group wondered whether replenishing stem cells might have an anti-ageing effect. Their curiosity was sparked by studies conducted on mice suffering from progeria, an extremely rare genetic disorder that causes premature ageing. The animals' lives were extended after receiving stem cell treatments. Other studies indicated improved cognitive function in mice with Alzheimer's disease that were also treated with stem cells.
Kim’s team decided to test whether stem cell treatments might have the same benefits for healthy animals. At the end of the 20-month study, stem cell injections helped rats live almost a third longer than normal. In addition, the treated animals remained both physically and mentally active longer throughout their lifespans. The animals also remained both cognitively and physically active longer than normal, too, according to Dr. Kim.
These results could be a starting point for more studies on ways to achieve similar results in humans, extending their health and lifespans using their own stem cells, too.
When Cryo-Cell International began its cord blood banking service close to 25 years ago, it had the foresight to know that stem cells found in umbilical cord blood could potentially have benefits even beyond the treatment of certain diseases. That foresight may one day soon bear incredible fruit.