New ‘fountain of youth’ gene may prevent heart attack, stroke

WASHINGTON: A gene, thought to be inactive in adults, may actually play a vital role in preventing heart attacks and stroke . and could also delay some of the effects of ageing, scientists have found.

Finding a way to augment the expression of this gene in adult cells may have profound implications for promoting health and possibly reversing some of the detrimental effects with ageing,” said Gary K Owens, from the University of Virginia (UVA) School of Medicine.

The gene, Oct4 , plays a key role in the development of all living organisms, but scientists have, until now, thought it was permanently inactivated after embryonic development.

Researchers have determined the gene plays a critical protective role during the formation of atherosclerotic plaques inside blood vessels. The rupturing of these plaques is the underlying cause of many heart attacks and strokes.

The researchers found that Oct4 controls the movement of smooth muscle cells into protective fibrous “caps” inside the plaques — caps that make the plaques less likely to rupture.

They also have provided evidence that the gene promotes many changes in gene expression that are beneficial in stabilizing the plaques.

Studies suggest that it may be possible to develop drugs or other therapeutic agents that target the Oct4 pathway as a means to reduce the incidence of heart attacks or stroke.

When the researchers blocked the effect of Oct4 in mice, they thought the atherosclerotic plaques might become smaller, because of the reduced number of smooth muscle cells inside.

Instead, the plaques grew larger, less stable and more dangerous, stuffed with lipids, dead cells and other damaging components.

Apart from cardiovascular protection, the gene could also prove critical to the field of regenerative medicine, which investigates the growth and replacement of tissues and organs, researchers said.

Researchers believe that Oct4 and its family of target genes are activated in other somatic cells — the non-reproductive cells in the body — and play a key role in the cells’ ability to repair damage and heal wounds.

Oct4 is one of the “stem cell pluripotency factors” described by Shinya Yamanaka , for which he received the 2012 Nobel prize.

The researchers suspect that at least some of the detrimental effects of ageing, including the increased possibility of a plaque rupture, stem from a decrease in the body’s ability to reactivate Oct4.

“Finding a way to reactivate this pathway may have profound implications for health and ageing,” Owens said.

“Who knows, this may end up being the ‘fountain-of-youth gene,’ a way to revitalise old and worn-out cells,” he said.


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