Anti-Aging Protein GDF11: Does it Work?

The protein is called GDF11 and some scientists claim that is can rejuvenate older laboratory animals and make them healthier. Sounds like science fiction, but could it be true?

Several decades ago, in the 1950s, some creative and enterprising scientists connected the circulatory systems of two inbred mice, one of which was old and the second of which was young. The blood from the young mouse seemed to rejuvenate the older mouse. That led to a question: “If blood from younger mouse rejuvenated the older mouse, what was it in the blood that did it?” Further work has landed on GDF11 as the rejuvenating protein, but the experimental path to this protein has been fraught with false starts, bumps, and wrong turns. New work by a team of Harvard University scientists hopes to set the record straight on GDF11.

Work by Harvard stem cell biologist Amy Wagers, cardiologist Richard Lee and the members of their laboratories and their collaborators have discovered that the blood concentrations of GDF11 drop in mice as they age. Such a finding is a correlation, which might be suggestive, but it falls short of proving that GDF11 is an anti-aging protein. However, Wagers and Lee and their colleagues also showed that when older mice are injected with GDF11, the protein partially reverses the thickening of the heart that comes with age. Wagers and her team also showed in two papers that were published in the journal Science that administration of GDF11 can rejuvenate the muscles and brains of older mice.

Wagers’ findings, however, received some push-back in May, 2015. According to Jocelyn Kaiser, writing at the Science web site, David Glass, who works at the Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and his colleagues have made use of an antibody that specifically binds to GDF11 to detect the protein and measure its concentration in the blood and tissues. Experiments with the anti-GDF11 antibody revealed that blood levels of GDF11 increase as rats and people get older. Also, in the hands of Glass and his team, injected GDF11 protein inhibited muscle regeneration in young mice. Furthermore, work from Steven Houser’s group at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, has shown that injections of GDF11 do not decrease the age-related thickening of the hearts of older mice. Now we have a genuine scientific controversy: so who’s right?

Wagers and Lee have concluded that the specific assay Novartis used to detect GDF11 and a related protein (GDF8 or myostatin) did not work properly. In their own experiments, the combined efforts of the Wagers and Lee teams showed that the main protein detected by the antibody test designed and used by the Glass group is immunoglobulin (antibodies). The levels of antibody proteins in the blood are known to rise in the blood as people get older. As a control, when the Wagers and Lee group used the Novartis-designed test to measure the proteins levels of laboratory mice that do not possess the gene that encodes antibodies, the blood of those mice tested negative. According to Jocelyn Kaiser, these data were published in a paper that appeared in the journal Circulation Research.

Wagers summarized the results of her and Lee’s laboratories, “They actually had very consistent findings to ours with respect to the blood levels of GDF11/8 with the antibody we all used.” However, according to Wagers, “their interpretation was confused by this case of mistaken identity.” To corroborate her point, Wagers cited a recently published study by scientists from the University of California, San Francisco, who found that GDF11/8 blood levels decline as people age, and are low in heart disease patients. These results support the hypothesis that GDF11 has antiaging activity.

The Harvard team’s paper also examined the results from the Houser laboratory. According to Wagers, Houser and his colleagues utilized commercially purchased GDF11, and this source of protein can vary in activity and levels. Wagers noted that it “wasn’t something that affected us early on, but we figured out it was an issue. The variability of commercially purchased GDF11 might explain why Houser and his colleagues were unable to see any results from injected GDF11. Houser and his team were quite careful to make sure that they injected the same dose of GDF11 as the Wagers and Lee. However, Wagers pointed out that if only a fraction of the protein was as active as the protein used by Wagers and Lee, then it is likely that Houser and his group actually used a lower effective dose than the Harvard group. Lee has also noted that he and his group have data that suggests that the GDF11 dose they used was actually higher than they initially thought.

Wagers and others also showed that daily injections of GDF11 can shrink heart muscle in both old and new mice, and, incredibly, the mice also lost weight. “We don’t have much insight into that right now, but we’re looking into it,” Wagers says. Wagers suspects that GDF11 only works within a particular therapeutic concentration, outside of which is will not work and above which it might cause side effects that are harmful.

What does the competition think? Houser thinks that Wager and Lee are probably correct that at least one of the assays used by the Novartis team to measure GDF11 detected immunoglobulin. However, both Houser David Glass have pointed out that the Novartis team used a different GDF11 detection assay whose accuracy was not challenged by the work in this new paper.

Houser remains sanguine about finding molecules that can delay aging.  “I’m going to be 65 in a couple months. I’d love to have something that improves my heart, brain, and muscle function,” said Houser. “I think the field is going to figure this out and this is another piece of the puzzle.”

The jury is still out when it comes to GDF11, but Wagers and Lee have made a positive contribution to a robust and thrillingly interesting scientific discussion.

Stem Cell Treatments Decrease the Effects of Aging

There is a new study in the journal Stem Cells Translational Medicine has shown that stem cell injections helped rats live almost a third longer than normal. In addition, the stem cell-treated animals remained both physically and mentally active longer throughout their life spans.

Aging is characterized by the loss of regenerative capacity of cells and tissues. This leads to the shrinkage of body mass and increased susceptibility to stress. “When new cells are not able to replace the ones that die, tissue integrity and functions decline. Therefore, it has been suggested that exhaustion of stem cells may be a major cause of aging in humans and that the proliferative potential of stem cells is related to life span,” said Yun-Bae Kim, D.V.M., Ph.D., at Chungbuk National University’s College of Veterinary Medicine in Seoul, South Korea. Dr. Kim as the principal investigator in this study, in collaboration with Jeong Chan Ra, D.V.M., Ph.D., at the Biostar Stem Cell Research Center in Seoul.

Kim and his colleagues hypothesized that replenishing stem cells might have an anti-aging effect. The rationale behind these experiments came from studies conducted on mice suffering from a very rare genetic disease called progeria that causes premature aging. Laboratory animals with progeria were had their lived extended after receiving stem cell treatments. Other studies have shown that the treatment of laboratory mice with Alzheimer’s disease with stem cells causes improved cognitive function.

The Kim and Ra research teams decided to test whether stem cell treatments might have the same benefits for healthy animals.

They divided 10-month-old male rats into two groups and intravenously transplanted each group with either human amniotic-membrane-derived mesenchymal stem cells (AMMSCs) or adipose-tissue-derived mesenchymal stem cells (ADMSCs). These transplantations were carried out once a month for the remainder of the animals’ lives. The animals were compared to a control group of 7-month-old rats that received no cells.

At the end of the 20-month study, only 30 percent of the control group survived, compared to 70 percent and 100 percent of the animals in the AMMSC and ADMSC groups, respectively. “Collectively, the mean life span of the rats (604.6 days) was extended to 746.0 days (23.4 percent increase) and 793.8 days (31.3 percent increase) by treatment with AMMSCs and ADMSCs, respectively. The animals also remained both cognitively and physically active longer than normal, too,” Dr. Kim said.

“We think these improvements in cognitive and motor functions might be due to the increased ACh (acetylcholine concentration, a major neurotransmitter or message sender) levels in the brain and muscles originating not only from the transplanted stem cells, but also from restored neurons,” Dr. Ra added. “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.”

“As this line of research progresses, it will be interesting to learn more about the mechanisms behind these results and whether they will apply to other species,” said Anthony Atala, M.D., Editor-in-Chief of STEM CELLS Translational Medicine and Director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

Teaching Old Cells New Tricks

The laboratory of Helen Blau at Stanford University has devised a technique to lengthen the sequences that cap the ends of chromosomes in skin cells. This treatment enlivens the cells and makes them behave as though they were younger.

In order to properly protect linear chromosomes from loosing DNA at their ends, chromosomes have a special set of sequences called “telomeres” at their ends. Telomeres consists of short sequences that are repeated many times. A special enzyme called the telomerase replicates the telomeres and maintains them. As we age, telomerase activity wanes and the telomeres shorten. This threatens the genetic integrity of the chromosomes, since a loss of genes from the ends of chromosomes can be deleterious for cells. In young humans, the telomeres may be 8,000 to 10,000 bases long. When the telomeres shorten to a particular length, growth stops and the cells become quiescent.

Human telomeres

Embryonic stem cells have long telomeres at the ends of their chromosomes and they also have robust telomerase activity. Adult stem cells have varied telomerase activity and telomere length, but it seems that the length of the telomeres and the activity of the telomerase correlates with the vitality of the stem cell population and its capacity to heal (see H. Saeed and M. Iqtedar (2013). J. Biosci. 38, 641–649). As we age our stem cell quality decreases as their telomeres shorten.

Blau and her colleagues used a modified type of RNA to lengthen the telomeres of large numbers of cells. According to Blau: “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. This greatly increases the number of cells available for studies such as drug testing or disease modeling.”

In these experiments, Blau and her coworkers used chemically modified messenger RNA molecules that code for TERT, which is the protein component of the telomerase. The expression of these messenger RNAs in human cells greatly increased the levels of telomerase activity.

This technique devised by Blau and her team have distinct advantages of previously described protocols. First, this technique boosts telomerase activity temporarily. The modified messenger RNA sticks around for several hours and is translated into TERT protein, but this protein only lasts for about 48 hours, after which its activity dissipates. After the telomerase have lengthened the telomeres, they will shorten again after each cell division as before.

“This new approach paves the way toward preventing or treating diseases of aging,” said Blau. “There are also highly debilitating genetic diseases associated with telomere shortening that could benefit from such a potential treatment.”

Blau and her team are testing their technique in other cell types besides skin cells.

Loss of Antioxidant Protein Prevents Muscle Regeneration During Aging

Nrf2 is a protein that regulates the response of cells to oxidative damage, This protein normally sits in the cytoplasm of cells where it is routinely degraded by other proteins. However, once cells are exposed to oxidative damage by ultraviolet light, reactive oxygen species, various chemicals, or other conditions that damage cellular structures, the degradation of Nrf2 slows way down and this protein moves into the nucleus where it binds DNA and stimulates the expression of a host of genes that encode proteins with anti-oxidant activity. Thus Nrf2 is one of the primary cellular defenses against the toxic effects of oxidative stress.

Nrf2 pathway

Researchers at the University of Utah School of Medicine have made mice that lack functional Nrf2 and they found that the stem cells of these mice were seriously impaired.

Raj Soorappan and his colleagues have discovered that the muscles of these Nrf2-deficient mice do not regenerate as they get older.

Soorappan explained: “Physical activity is the key to everything.” He continued: “After this study we believe that moderate exercise could be one of the key ways to induce stem cells to regenerate especially during aging.”

Sarcopenia or the age-related loss of muscle mass, begins in most people around the age of 30. To delay this inevitable slide, muscle=producing stem cells help regenerate muscle lost by means of aging and the production of antioxidant molecules help protect stem cells populations so that they can maintain muscle mass.

However, as we age, the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) overwhelms our endogenous antioxidant systems, and our stem cell populations take a hit. This compromises our ability to regenerate muscle and other tissues as well.

As previously mentioned, Nrf2 regulates the production of these antioxidant molecules. Soorappan used mice that were 23 months old or older (these are rodent senior citizens to be sure). One group of old mice made normal levels of Nrf2, but the other group had no functional Nrf2 protein. Soorappan and his colleagues put these mice through endurance training to determine the effects of ROS on these animals. Interestingly, the Nrf2-deficient mice showed an inability to mobilize their muscle stem cells (satellite cells) to regenerate their muscles. The Nrf2-containing mice, however, were able to properly regenerate their muscles.

“We now know that the antioxidant protein Nrf2 guards the muscle regeneration process in elderly mice and loss of Nrf2, when combined with endurance exercise stress, can cause severe muscle stem cell impairment,” said Mudhusudhanan Narasimhan, the primary author of this research and a research associate with Soorappan.

Soorappan thinks that by understanding the precise role of Nrf2 in muscle regeneration, he an his co-workers will be able to design more informed therapies of muscle loss in aging animals and humans.

Next on Soorappan’s agenda is to examine the effects of exercise on Nrf2 and whether or not an active lifestyle affects the function of Nrf2 and the efficiency of the anti-oxidant pathway it mediates.

The take-home message for now seems to be: “If you don’t use your muscles, you will lose them. At the same time, overdoing endurance training may detract from muscle regeneration,” said Soorappan.

Restoring Muscle Strength in Aging Muscle

Unfortunately, muscle tone and strength decrease as we age. You can work out at the gym all you want. Eventually the relentless march and deterioration of age catches up with even the most avid athlete. However, a Stanford University group believes that they might have discovered why this happens and new cell targets to help reverse it.

According to Helen Blau (the doyen of muscle research), over time, stem cells that help repair damaged muscle cells after injury are less able to do so. This explains why regaining strength and recovering from a muscle injury gets more difficult with age. Blau and her team published their results in the journal Nature Medicine.

Fortunately, Blau’s study also suggests a way to make older muscle stem cells function more like younger ones. The caveat is that research in mice often doesn’t translate to humans. Therefore more work is necessary in order to determine if this technique could ever be used in people.

“In the past, it’s been thought that muscle stem cells themselves don’t change with age, and that any loss of function is primarily due to external factors in the cells’ environment,” study senior author Helen Blau, director of Stanford’s Baxter Laboratory for Stem Cell Biology, said in a university news release.

“However, when we isolated stem cells from older mice, we found that they exhibit profound changes with age,” said Blau, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the university. “Two-thirds of the cells are dysfunctional when compared to those from younger mice, and the defect persists even when transplanted into young muscles.”

The research also revealed, however, that there is a defect specific to old muscle stem cells that can be corrected, which allowed scientists to rejuvenate these stem cells.

“Most exciting is that we also discovered a way to overcome the defect,” Blau said. “As a result, we have a new therapeutic target that could one day be used to help elderly human patients repair muscle damage.”

The muscle stem cells in 2-year-old mice are the equivalent of those found in 80-years-old humans. In the course of their study, Blau and her team found that many muscle stem cells from these mice had increased activity in a certain biological pathway (p38α and p38β mitogen-activated kinase pathways, for those who are interested) that inhibits the production of the stem cells.

Drugs that block this pathway in old stem cells, however, allowed the aged stem cells to make a larger number of new cells that could effectively repair muscle damage.

According to Blau: “In mice, we can take cells from an old animal, treat them for seven days — during which time their numbers expand as much as 60-fold — and then return them to injured muscles in old animals to facilitate their repair.”

Once the mice received their rejuvenated muscle stem cells, the researchers tested their muscle strength with assistance from co-author Scott Delp, a professor in the School of Engineering, who has developed a way to measure muscle strength in animals that underwent stem cell therapy for muscle injuries.

Study lead author Benjamin Cosgrove, a postdoctoral scholar at the university, said: “We were able to show that transplantation of the old, treated muscle stem cell population repaired the damage and restored strength to injured muscles of old mice. Two months after transplantation, these muscles exhibited forces equivalent to young, uninjured muscles. This was the most encouraging finding of all.”

The study’s authors said they plan to continue their research to determine if people could benefit from this technique.

“If we could isolate the stem cells from an elderly person, expose them in culture to the proper conditions to rejuvenate them and transfer them back into a site of muscle injury, we may be able to use the person’s own cells to aid recovery from trauma or to prevent localized muscle atrophy and weakness due to broken bones,” Blau said.

“This really opens a whole new avenue to enhance the repair of specific muscles in the elderly, especially after an injury,” she said. “Our data pave the way for such a stem cell therapy.”

Accelerating Stem Cells Aging To Study Age-Related Diseases Like Parkinson’s

Using stem cells to model neurodegenerative diseases shows terrific promise, but because the stem cells tend to produce young cells, they often fail to accurately model disorders that show late-onset. To solve this problem, a research group has published a paper in the December 5th edition of the journal Cell Stem Cell that describes an ingenious new method that converts induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) into nerve cells that recapitulate features associated with aging as well as Parkinson’s disease. This simple approach, which involves exposing iPSC-derived cells to a protein associated with premature aging called “progerin,” could provide a way for scientists to use stem cells to model a range of late-onset disorders. This technique could potentially open new avenues for preventing and treating these devastating diseases.

“With current techniques, we would typically have to grow pluripotent stem cell-derived cells for 60 or more years in order to model a late-onset disease,” says senior study author Lorenz Studer of the Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research. “Now, with progerin-induced aging, we can accelerate this process down to a period of a few days or weeks. This should greatly simplify the study of many late-onset diseases that are of such great burden to our aging society.”

Induced pluripotent stem cells allow scientists to model a specific patient’s disease in a culture dish. By extracting a small sample of skin cells and genetically engineering them with pluripotency factors, the cells are reprogrammed into embryonic-like stem cells that have the ability to differentiate into other disease-relevant cell types like neurons or blood cells. However, iPSC-derived cells are immature and they can take months to become functional. Consequently, their slow maturation process causes iPSC-derived cells to be too young to effectively model diseases that emerge later in life.

To overcome this hurdle, Studer’s team exposed iPSC-derived skin cells and neurons that originated from both young and old donors, to a protein called “progerin.” Progerin is a mutant form of the nuclear lamin proteins that provide structure to the nuclear membrane. Mutations in these proteins cause premature aging and an early death from old age. Short-term exposure of these iPSC-derived cells to progerin caused them to manifest age-associated markers that are normally present in older cells.

Then Studer and others used iPSC technology to reprogram skin cells taken from patients with Parkinson’s disease and differentiated them into dopaminergic neurons; the type of neuron that is defective in these patients. After exposure to progerin, these cultured neurons recapitulated disease-related features, including neuronal degeneration and cell death as well as mitochondrial defects.

“We could observe novel disease-related phenotypes that could not be modeled in previous efforts of studying Parkinson’s disease in a dish,” says first author Justine Miller of the Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research. “We hope that the strategy will enable mechanistic studies that could explain why a disease is late-onset. We also think that it could enable a more relevant screening platform to develop new drugs that treat late-onset diseases and prevent degeneration.”

Adding One Gene to Cells can Regrow Hair, Cartilage, Bone and Soft Tissues

The reactivation of a gene called Lin28a, which is active in embryonic stem cells, can regrow hair and repair cartilage, bone, skin, and other soft tissues in mice.

This study comes from scientists at the Stem Cell Program at Boston Children’s Hospital who found that the Lin28a promotes tissue repair by enhancing metabolism in mitochondria, which are the energy-producing engines in cells. These data suggest that upregulation of common “housekeeping” functions might provide new ways to develop regenerative treatments.

George Q. Daley, the director of Boston Children’s Hospital Stem Cell Transplantation Program, said, “Efforts to improve wound healing and tissue repair have mostly failed, but altering metabolism provides a new strategy which we hope will prove successful.”

One of the first authors of this paper, Shyh-Chang Ng, added, “Most people would naturally think that growth factors are the major players in wound healing, but we found that the core metabolism of cells is rate-limiting in terms of tissue repair. The enhanced metabolic rate we saw when we reactivated Lin28a is typical of embryos during their rapid growth phase.”

Lin28a was first discovered in worms, but the Lin28a gene is found in all animals. It is abundantly expressed in embryonic stem cells and during early embryonic development. Stem cell scientists have even used Lin28a to help reprogram adult cells into induced pluripotent stem cells. Lin28a encodes an RNA-binding protein that regulates the translation of messenger RNAs into protein.

To express more of this protein in mice, Daley and his colleagues attached the Lin28a gene to a piece of DNA that would drive expression when the mice were fed the drug doxycycline. Ng and others noticed that one of the targets of Lin28a was a small RNA molecule called Let-7, which is known to promote aging and cell maturation. Let-7 is a member of a class of non-coding RNA molecules called micro-RNAs that bind to messenger RNAs and prevent their translation.  Let-7 is made as a larger precursor molecule that is processed to a smaller molecule that is functional.  LIN28 binds specifically to the primary and precursor forms of Let-7, and inhibits Let-7 processing.

Lin28a function

Ng said, “We were confident that Let-7 would be the mechanism, but there was something else involved.”

Let-28a is known to activate the translation of several different genes that play a role in basic energy metabolism (e.g., Pfkp, Pdha1, Idh3b, Sdha, Ndufb3, and Ndufb8), Activation of these genes enhances oxidative metabolism and promotes an embryonic bioenergetic state.

In their Lin28a transgenic mice, Daley, Ng and others noticed that Lin28a definitively enhanced the production of metabolic enzymes in mitochondria, and that these “revved up” the mitochondria so that they generated the energy needed to stimulate and grow new tissues.


“We already know that accumulated defects in mitochondria can lead to aging in many cells and tissues,” said Ng. We are showing the converse: enhancement of mitochondrial metabolism can boost tissue repair and regeneration, recapturing the remarkable repair capacity of juvenile animals. ”

Further experiments showed that bypassing Lin28a and directly activating mitochondrial metabolism with small molecules had the same effect on wound healing. This suggests that pharmaceuticals might induce regeneration and enhance tissue repair.

“Since Lin28 itself is difficult to introduce into cells, the fact that we were able to activate mitochondrial metabolism pharmacologically gives us hope,” said Ng.

Lin28a did not cause universal regeneration of all tissues. Heart tissue, for example, was poorly aided by Lin28a. Also, Lin28a induced the regeneration of severed finger tips in newborn mice, but not in adult mice.

Nevertheless, Lin28a could be a key factor in constituting a kind of healing cocktail, in combination with other embryonic factors yet to be found.