US skin scientists have succeeded in making the skin cells of senior citizens act like younger cells again, simply by adding more "filler" to the fibres around the cells.
Skin cells sit in a loose scaffold of material known as an extracellular matrix, or ECM. It's made of tiny fibres of collagen, produced by the cells (fibroblasts).
As the skin ages, the ECM becomes fragmented and causes cells to lose their connections to the scaffold that holds them in place. This lack of support further accelerates the decline, causing what we all see as wrinkles and elasticated skin – the all-too-familiar effects of ageing.
Scientists believe the same thing may happen in other types of tissue. The researchers in this study injected the skin of 21 volunteers aged in their 80s with a filler often used cosmetically to reduce facial wrinkles. The filler bolsters the ECM, filling in the spaces left by ageing.
The University of Michigan researchers – who were not funded by the product's manufacturer and who did not release the product name – chose to inject the buttocks of their participants, rather than their facial skin.
This was because the buttock skin remained relatively unaffected by prolonged exposure to ultra violet light and environmental contaminants that break down bonds in the skin's collagen cells and contribute to facial skin damage.
The result: over three months, the fibroblasts began expressing collagen-related genes, producing more collagen, and connecting better to the ECM. The entire layer of skin grew thicker, and more blood vessels, which nourished the cells were seen.
"Fragmentation of the ECM plays an important role in skin ageing, but by altering the matrix using an external filler and increasing the internal pressure, we can essentially trigger a signal to 'wake up' the skin cells," says Gary Fisher, Professor of Molecular Dermatology and senior author of the new study, published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology.
However, he says, this does not mean that we should inject filler throughout our bodies. The discovery's importance lies in the potential for the prevention and treatment of skin thinning as we age, which often leaves elderly patients more prone to skin tearing and interferes with healing after incisions or injury.
"This shows that skin cells in elderly people have the capacity to respond robustly in a very positive way to alterations in the mechanical property of their environment," says Professor Fisher. "We still need to know more about how cells sense their environment, but in general it appears we have made a real difference in the structural integrity of skin."
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