Leading scientist 'blown away' by UAE advances in stem cell research

Pekka Katajisto believes a greater understanding of human genetics can extend lifespans and boost health

Pekka Katajisto, a scientist from Finland known for his breakthrough research in stem cell metabolism, speaks during a visit to Abu Dhabi. Ruel Pableo for The National
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A leading stem cell scientist has said he was “totally blown away” by advances being made in the UAE.

Pekka Katajisto, director of the MetaStem Centre of Excellence at the University of Helsinki, spoke of the crucial work being carried out in both the Emirates and his homeland of Finland to extend and improve lives during a visit to Abu Dhabi.

He reflected on the progress of the Abu Dhabi Stem Cell Centre as well as the Emirati Genome Programme, which aims to boost understanding of rare genetic disorders and pave the way for early diagnosis.

“I am totally blown away and surprised to find so much activity here that is looking into stem cells and use of genomic data in the UAE,” Dr Katajisto, who is also a professor of ageing biology, told The National after meeting researchers and professors at the Abu Dhabi Stem Cell Centre on Wednesday.

“Somehow, I had the wrong impression that the country mainly focuses on the petroleum industry and, of course, tourism. I realised I haven’t been paying attention to the fast pace of research that is happening here. This has been really an eye-opening visit.

“There is a singularly genetic make-up here. You have a distinct a heritable disease gene load in here. We have our own. And both of us are tapping into the genomic information. In the coming years, it will become common to use genomic data for better health care.”

The UAE has been making significant strides in stem cell therapy, which is viewed as key to enhancing health care, particularly in cancer treatment and life expectancy.

Earlier this year, the UAE successfully completed a bone marrow transplant by using longer-term cryogenic freezing of healthy cells.

Dr Katajisto said he is currently studying how insulin secretion can be restored in diabetic patients by transplanting beta cells isolated from the pancreas. Type 1 diabetes is caused by the destruction of pancreatic beta cells, resulting in patients having to replace the lost insulin with injections.

“Once we achieve that to a high enough level, then we have a living drug in our hands — a beta cell that can be transplanted into a human body that is lacking in production of insulin.”

Improving human lifespan

Speaking about his work on longevity and age-related diseases, Dr Katajisto said it was crucial as Finland deals with an ageing population.

“So, we are looking into ways of tissue metabolism and how to renew the muscle tissue, so that we are able to stop cell deterioration even as we age.”

In a young body, stem cells counter the wear and tear of tissue by replacing damaged cells with new ones. However, as we age, the capacity of stem cells declines and the resulting drop in tissue repair manifests as the functional decline associated with ageing, he explained.

Dr Katajisto’s research mainly focuses on understanding why stem cell activity deteriorates with age and how to develop stem cell-based strategies that focus on ageing-related diseases and ailments.

Through what is known as “reprogramming”, he said scientists are able to develop cells with better abilities to deal with many of the problems that an ageing body experiences.

A simple solution to improving health

While scientists are exploring ways to expand human lifespan, Dr Katajisto said we already have a good way of delaying ageing and extending lifespan.

“It is called calorie restriction. All you need to do is eat less. But this is what people don’t want to do.”

He said it has been scientifically proven in primates that, by taking away 30 per cent of the food that they eat, we can increase lifespan.

“You don't need a stem cell therapy. In mice, for example, we can expect to extend their lifespan about 16 to 20 per cent.”

“We have been studying this very intensely in our laboratory, isolating stem cells from the tissues of a mouse that has been on calorie restriction. When we do a tissue plate culture from a starving mouse, their cells regenerate much quickly.”

The effects of calorie restriction in humans and other primates remain controversial.

But while addressing the issue of lifespan, and using transformative sciences, Dr Katajisto said there are ethical questions of how much we should alter the life cycle.

Again and again, we get surprised how complicated it is to extend human lifespan because throughout human history, we have studied individuals who have lived longer than 120 years. That is what we see as the maximum lifespan now,” he said.

But, with traditional health care becoming better and better, people live longer but with age-related diseases.

“And eventually, when everybody lives long, everybody has a disease. That puts a burden on the healthcare system,” he continued.

“It is high time for us to be interested in the biology of what drives these diseases, especially the ageing-related diseases, because if we can then tap in there, we can basically give people more healthy years. That is more important.”

Updated: December 15, 2022, 3:30 AM