In Short: Scientists show how a protein from the umbilical cord blood of human babies helps improve learning memory in old mice. This finding could enable us to treat age related diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
Umbilical cord blood has been in the news a lot lately. Earlier this year, winter Olympian Chemmy Alcott stored the blood from her baby’s umbilical cord in a blood bank. Her goal was to preserve the stem cells found in the blood. For researchers Joseph Castellano and Tony Wyss-Coray of Stanford University, however, umbilical cord blood, specifically the proteins found in umbilical cord blood, have a different purpose: to see if injecting umbilical cord blood plasma, the blood without the blood cells, into old mice animals improved the health of the mice.
Method and Science
Umbilical cord blood is special because it contains molecules, such as specialized proteins, which aren’t found our blood as adults. Proteins are functional units of the cell which influence how the cell works. There are thousands of different proteins and thus cells can perform a variety of functions depending on the proteins present.
The research team at Stanford, found that one of the proteins in the umbilical cord, TIMP 2, improved the learning and memory capability of older mice.
They came to this discovery by the process of elimination. Starting with mice equivalent to the age of 70 years in humans, the researchers injected the mice with blood plasma from either the umbilical cord of babies, a young 22 year old young adult, or a 66 year old adult. Age wise, the younger the blood plasma sample, the greater the effect on the elderly mice’s learning ability. On closer inspection the researchers were able to pinpoint that the protein TIMP 2 increased activity in brain cells located in the hippocampus — the area of the brain associated with learning and memory.
The authors are hoping to use this discovery to treat age related diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Their hope is this research leads to the development of a drug which delivers TIMP 2 to the patient’s brain cells. This would be a safer option than providing umbilical cord blood plasma samples to older individuals as certain molecules in the plasma may lead to cancer. However, the research is still in its early stage and it may be a while before any therapeutic applications are available.
Research article: Human umbilical cord plasma proteins revitalize hippocampal function in aged mice. Nature (2017) doi:10.1038/nature22067
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