Protein named after Tír na nÓg can reverse cell ageing in muscles

What do Wolverine and the inhabitants of Tír na nÓg have in common? Everlasting life. Well almost.

Wolverine has an accelerated healing factor that allows him to rapidly heal after sustaining injury. More impressively, his superpowers allow him to age much slower than us mere mortals.

Parallels can be drawn between Wolverine and the inhabitants of Tír na nÓg. In Irish mythology, Tír na nÓg (or Land of the Young) is the fabled island paradise where the inhabitants bask in the glory of everlasting youth, beauty, health, and joy. And in literature, Tír na nÓg is best known for the story of Oisín and Niamh.

Returning to the real world, Wolverine’s slow ageing and the immortality of Niamh from Tír na nÓg seem to be nothing more than fiction. However, new research from a team led by the University of Buffalo indicate that a particular protein can help reverse ageing in muscle cells. And the protein in question is known as NANOG, named after Tír na nÓg.

Tír na nÓg – the Land of the Young – is a land that’s the subject of Irish mythological stories.

Making Sense of Senescence

When cells age in the body, they start becoming bad at proliferating or multiplying. In fact, some of them permanently lose the ability to divide and create new cells, but they don’t die. This process is known as cellular senescence.

Losing the ability to replicate can prove detrimental for certain cells in the body, particularly those in muscles. Our muscles make up about 45% of our body mass, are heavily involved in body movements, and are also important for how the body uses resources for energy. Unsurprisingly, reliance on our muscles puts a lot of pressure on the muscle cells, and as a result, they need to be able to regenerate frequently. So, if they suddenly experience cellular senescence, that could spell muscular disaster.

NANOG to the rescue

Cross section of skeletal muscle under microscope.

The researchers had a hunch that the protein NANOG could reverse this senescence process in muscle cells, and they carried out the following experiment.

They took some myoblasts, which are cells that eventually turn into muscle cells in the body, and they programmed them to make more than normal amounts of NANOG. Importantly, the myoblasts were not able to divide and grow. In this way, the researchers could truly test if the extra NANOG protein made a difference.

Intriguingly, the extra NANOG actually improved how the cells regulated energy use, how the cells removed damaged cells or waste (known as autophagy), and how the cells produced energy.   

But incredibly, NANOG actually increased the number of muscle stem cells – the stem cells in the muscles that can be recruited to make new muscle cells and are activated when muscle is damaged. In other words, the extra NANOG helped to rejuvenate the muscles by calling on more and more muscle stem cells.

Real-world Tír na nÓg?

Do this mean we’ll have a real-world Tír na nÓg in the future? Probably not.

In the story of Oisín and Niamh, Oisín travelled to Tír na nÓg from Ireland. He spent what seems to be three years there, and when he returns to Ireland for a visit it’s as if 300 years have passed. Could this have been due to extra NANOG coursing through his cells while in Tír na nÓg? Or just something magical in the air in Tír na nÓg?

It’s more likely that Wolverine’s slow ageing could be due to increased levels of NANOG in his cells. The levels could be so high that they are continually recruiting stem cells to various parts of his body in preparation for an injury so that when he is injured, his accelerated healing factor can kick in and utilise the built-up reserves of stem cells in an instant.

The researchers work won’t be used to create a real Tír na nÓg or a Wolverine-like person for that matter. They hope that their research can be used to create new therapies to reverse the adverse effects of cellular senescence and help those with ageing-related diseases.

Dreams of having Wolverine’s slow-ageing powers or visiting Tír na nÓg will have to put on hold for the moment.

But in the future, NANOG could be our ticket to Land of the Young.

Full paper details

Ameliorating the hallmarks of cellular senescence in skeletal muscle myogenic progenitors in vitro and in vivo”, A. Shahani et al., Science Advances, (2021).