mRNA may be the next big thing in anti-aging

By Alpana Mohta, MD, DNB, FEADV, FIADVL, IFAAD | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published October 11, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Researchers at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center may have just discovered a game-changing solution to combat wrinkles. 

  • An animal study has found a safer and more effective alternative to Botox injections by utilizing mRNA to rejuvenate aging skin. Unlike Botox, which relies on muscle paralysis, mRNA stimulates collagen production. 

  • mRNA therapy is also being utilized for vaccines to prevent infectious diseases and to treat cancer, and in the development of medications that replace proteins in the body, which can be used as immune therapies. 

Botox has long been the go-to solution for individuals seeking smoother skin. However, its mode of action is far from perfect. Botox paralyzes muscles, leading to potential side effects such as muscle weakness, vision and breathing difficulties, speech problems, swallowing issues, and even loss of bladder control.[]

Recognizing these drawbacks, the research team at MD Anderson Cancer Center set out to develop a safer and more effective alternative.

The future of wrinkle reduction?

In pursuing an alternative to Botox, scientists turned to mRNA, a single-stranded genetic molecule with instructions for protein synthesis within cells.

Instead of paralyzing muscles, these DNA injections utilize mRNA to stimulate collagen production. To test their approach, researchers conducted experiments on bald mice, exposing them to UV radiation for 60 days to induce wrinkles.[]

Subsequently, mRNA was injected into the irradiated mice's skin using microneedles for 15 minutes in a single session. After just 28 days of single-dose mRNA injection, the treated mice displayed the same wrinkle count as those not exposed to UV radiation. Additionally, the injection sustained enhanced collagen production in the targeted area for nearly 2 months.

Central to this breakthrough research is the first successful application of extracellular vesicles (EVs) derived from human skin fibroblasts as a pharmaceutical therapy. This study used EVs to carry mRNA for a protein called COL1A1. Then, researchers used a special patch with needles made of hyaluronic acid (HA) to deliver these mRNA-loaded EVs to the skin.

This approach helped treat skin wrinkles caused by aging and sun damage. Its success may represent a promising approach to use mRNA for anti-aging treatments without some of the issues associated with other carriers.

Betty Kim, MD, PhD, the corresponding author of the MD Anderson study and a professor of neurosurgery, emphasized the significance of this new modality for mRNA delivery. In the MD Anderson press release about the study, Dr. Kim said, “This [EV] is an entirely new modality for delivering mRNA. We used it in our study to initiate collagen production in cells, but it has the potential to be a delivery system for several therapies that currently have no good delivery method.”[]

Overcoming challenges in mRNA medicine

While mRNA holds tremendous promise for medical applications, its fragile nature presents a significant challenge. However, the successful deployment of mRNA vaccines in the fight against COVID-19 has illuminated a path forward. As the MD Anderson researchers explained in their article, delivering mRNA into target cells requires a protective carrier, which has traditionally been a synthetic fat like lipid nanoparticles (LNPs).

Although LNPs are the primary method for transporting mRNA, they have drawbacks, such as potential toxicity to cells, limited ability to reach target receptors, and occasional immunological reactions. Scientists are actively exploring alternative options, like EVs, in response to these limitations. EVs are naturally produced in our bodies within fibroblasts and are less likely to cause any potential adverse events.

Additional uses of mRNA therapies

Dr. Kim envisions a bright future for mRNA in medicine: “mRNA therapies have the potential to address a number of health issues, from protein loss as we age to hereditary disorders where beneficial genes or proteins are missing,” she said. “There is even the potential for delivering tumor-suppressing mRNA as a cancer therapy, so finding a new avenue to deliver mRNA is exciting. There is still work to be done to bring this to the clinic, but these early results are promising.”

According to a review published in Fundamental Research, mRNA therapeutics include making vaccines to prevent infectious diseases, creating vaccines for cancer treatment, and developing medications that replace proteins in the body, which can be used as immune therapies.[]

Future prospects

In prior research endeavors, the MD Anderson research team successfully pioneered a technique known as cellular nanoporation (CNP). This method involves the creation of temporary nanoscale openings on the surface of donor cells, facilitating the extensive loading of full-length mRNA transcripts into secreted EVs. Future research studies can apply this CNP technology to craft clinically useful pharmacological therapies.

What this means for you

Ongoing research shows that mRNA can potentially be used as an effective alternative to Botox. But mRNA's anti-aging potential isn't the only benefit. Research is paving the way for more comprehensive assessments of EVs as a reliable method for delivering mRNA, and subject to additional enhancements and validation through clinical trials, this delivery approach holds great promise for advancing the field of mRNA-based medications.

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