When it comes to scientific inspiration, an unconventional individual stands out in Dr. Jeff Dilworth’s mind: a 95-year-old-man who donated his body to science more than a decade ago. Although the man had been dead for more than six days, researchers in France were able to ‘revive’ his muscle stem in the lab and turn them into muscle-making super cells.
“When you’re 95 years old, it’s pretty difficult to grow new muscles, but this study showed that the potential is there,” explains Dr. Dilworth, a senior scientist at The Ottawa Hospital and professor at the University of Ottawa.
Epigenetics key to understanding stem cells
While muscle stem cells keep the same DNA sequence throughout life, the way this DNA is packaged can be affected by age, diet, exercise and other environmental factors. This is called epigenetics and Dr. Dilworth believes it is crucial for understanding stem cells and how they can be harnessed to help us live longer and healthier.
“Epigenetics is what makes our stem cells supercharged when we’re young and completely ineffective when we’re old,” he says. “And what’s exciting is that epigenetic changes are reversible. Diet and exercise can make a difference, but we may discover other ways to modify this as well.”
Major discovery could lead to new ways to enhance muscle repair
By focusing on epigenetics, Dr. Dilworth and his team recently made a major discovery related to muscle repair, a breakthrough that was recognized with The Ottawa Hospital’s Chrétien Researcher of the Year Award for 2021.
Previously, it was thought that muscle stem cells would divide in a balanced way to repair an injury - carefully creating just enough muscle fibres to repair the damage while also preserving enough stem cells for future repair.
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