The latest development in the quest for eternal youth concerns that most visible sign of aging – the skin. Scientists at the University of Michigan (U-M) have found that it might be possible to slow the decline of aging tissue by focusing not on the cells but on the stuff that surrounds those cells. By adding more filler to the fiber-filled area around the cells, they were able to make the skin cells of senior citizens act like younger cells again.

In animals, the extracellular matrix, or ECM, acts like the scaffold for the skin cells. The ECM is created by tiny fibrils of collagen called fibroblasts, which are produced by the cells. What happens to all of us over time, as skin ages, is that the ECM becomes fragmented. As a result, our cells lose their connections to that scaffold. And with no support from that scaffold, their decline is accelerated.

The scientists from U-M's Department of Dermatology injected the skin of 21 volunteers in their 80s with a filler often used cosmetically to reduce facial wrinkles. This filler bolsters the ECM, filling in the spaces left by aging. They found that the fibroblasts began expressing collagen-related genes. With more collagen produced, the ECM became less fragmented. Indeed, the entire layer of skin grew thicker and more blood vessels were created, nourishing the cells.

“Fragmentation of the extracellular matrix plays an important role in skin aging, but by altering the matrix using an external filler and increasing the internal pressure, we’ve shown that we can essentially trigger a signal for cells to wake up,” said Gary Fisher, Ph.D., the Harry Helfman Professor of Molecular Dermatology and the study’s senior author.

There are some limitations with the study. The researchers were not looking at the skin on the faces of their subjects, which is the area that gets the most exposure to ultraviolet light. That’s why we can see the effects of aging most markedly on someone’s face. Instead, the scientists focused on skin from an area that had almost never seen the light of day – the buttocks.

It’s for this reason they say that the research doesn't suggest we should be using this cosmetic filler through the body. Rather, the researchers believe a better understanding of the ECM should lead to new discoveries for better prevention and treatment of damaged skin cells.

The team's study was published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology

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