Scientists from the Fraunhofer Society in Germany have developed a method to check the condition of human genetic material, to detect the changes at the chemical and molecular level that come with aging. This may open the door to new drugs and to track health or diseases.
In the course of a human lifetime, the genetic make-up of every person undergoes changes through chemical reactions and molecular deposits. This can lead to diseases. Also, the biological age of a person can also be deducted from this information. Through a project titled "DrugTarget", scientists from the Germany-based Fraunhofer Society have developed a method through which the condition of the genetic material can be quickly checked. This is signaling a new approach to develop new drugs and answer questions of particular changes and statuses that individuals may have over the state of their health.
In the past, it was believed that the genome remained completely unchanged throughout a person's life and that the genes were a matrix from which the information about a protein’s construction was constant. Today we know that the genetic material can change over the years - and that environmental influences or lifestyle also play a role.
These changes include, in particular, so-called methylations. Small molecule building blocks, so-called methyl groups, are gradually attached to certain parts of the DNA. This can lead to the fact that certain genes can no longer be read. These changes increase the probability that gene changes occur at specific DNA sites. As a result, diseases can develop. Experts, therefore, speak of methylation as a "contamination" of the DNA.
"On the other hand, methylation is a natural process that takes place in every human being during his or her lifetime," said Prof. Carsten Claussen of the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology (German acronym IME) in Hamburg, Germany. In addition, methylation also controls certain biological processes in the body. However, excessive methylation can become a problem. Our lifestyle, nutrition, smoking, alcohol or other environmental factors influence the degree of methylation in our genome, which continues to increase over the course of our lives.
"This makes methylation an indicator of the body’s aging," Claussen continued. This also makes it possible to determine the biological age of humans on the basis of the methylation state of the genetic material. Carsten Claussen and his colleagues have developed a corresponding method for measuring biological age together with scientists from the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Information Technology (German acronym: FIT).
For the test, the user takes a swab from the oral mucosa with a cotton swab and sends it to a laboratory. Genetic analysis is carried out there, which provides data on the genes and the methylation state of the DNA. This data is then analyzed using AI software developed at the IME. The software then uses the methylation data to determine the biological age. Initial series of tests on around 150 test persons showed that the algorithm worked very well. It was shown that the estimates of biological age in healthy and fit people usually correspond surprisingly well to the actual chronological age of the persons - and differ only by a few months.
While the company involved in the project wants to offer the method primarily to health-conscious people who want to know how fit or biologically young their bodies really are, the Fraunhofer scientists are working on a future medical application.
It is known that methylations block certain genes. The researchers now want to find active substances that specifically dissolve such methylations in certain genes. In this way, they hope to stop the aging process at these sites in order to prevent the later development of diseases.