Nature Medicine has recently published a research on a potential age defying gene, which was conducted by a team of scientists from the University of Virginia. The scientists closely scrutinized the effects of a gene known as Oct-4 and its significance in human body, eventually discovering that Oct-4 has an atheroprotective role in atherosclerosis.

Previously, scientists believed that this gene actively expresses itself during the stage of embryonic development and is later inactive during adulthood. Some prior controversial studies had claimed that Oct-4 carried out a number of other functions later in life; however, their findings were not backed up by sufficient scientific evidence.

Now, though, a new avenue of research into the potential role of Oct-4 gene has opened, thanks to scientists from the University of Virginia. The university’s study on Oct-4 may prove to be a milestone towards exploring genetic mechanisms that fight against aging.

According to researchers from the University of Virginia, the previously assumed silent gene in an adult is not silent at all. The gene has a role in protecting aging individuals from serious ailments, such as heart attack and strokes. It is also claimed that the gene, if manipulated to elicit a precise expression, can improve cell healing and repair processes.

The primary focus of this study was to examine the role of the Oct-4 gene for patients suffering from atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is a sub-type of arteriosclerosis that is a general term for artery thickening or hardening. Atherosclerosis is a condition in which the arteries harden due to plaque buildup, with the plaque consisting of fatty acids, cellular debris, clotting factors, calcium and cholesterol.

The process of atherosclerosis is gradual, taking years to manifest corresponding complications. The condition turns deadly when the atherosclerotic plaques rupture and cause blockages in blood vessels. If the blood vessels in cross proximity of brain are blocked, a stroke may occur. Additionally, if a blood vessel is obstructed near the heart, it may result in a heart attack.

The rupturing is associated with the thin fibrous walls of the plaque, which increase the likelihood of the plaque’s bursting. It is found that the Oct-4 gene directs the movement of smooth muscle cells into protective fibrous caps inside the plaques. This, in turn, stabilizes the plaque structure, which is less likely to rupture and cause damage.

To fortify their findings, scientists experimented on mice by blocking the effects of Oct-4. As the gene was claimed to be contributing towards an increase in muscle cells, it was hypothesized that the atherosclerotic plaque will reduce in size.

To their surprise, it was observed that the plaques were enlarged in size, filled the lipids and became highly unstable, eventually causing increased system damage. With this surprising finding, scientists will have to dig deeper into the matter and investigate any other unexplored functions of the Oct-4 gene.

However, this finding also has the potential to develop new treatments for cardiac problems. The Oct-4 pathways manipulation process should undergo clinical trials to find how helpful this research can be to healthcare professionals. As said by Olga A Cherepanova, PhD, a senior research scientist in Gary K. Owens’ lab: “Our findings have major implications regarding possible novel therapeutic approaches for promoting stabilization of atherosclerotic plaques.”

The underlying potential of this gene is also associated with pluripotency of cells. Oct-4 is an abbreviation for octamer-binding transcription factor 4 which belongs to the POU transcription factor family. The gene encodes proteins that function as transcription factors and facilitate in the self-renewal of undifferentiated embryonic cells.

Furthermore, Oct-4 provides crucial input in giving “pluripotency” to the embryonic stem cells. Pluripotency is the ability of an undifferentiated cell to differentiate and proliferate into any type of cell required by an organism. To maintain the pluripotency of cells, the role of certain transcription factors is essential.

To complement this finding, studies have been conducted to show how an induced overexpression of some transcription factors help differentiate somatic cells to revert back to their pluripotent stem cell state. Amongst the experimented transcription factors, the Oct-4 gene was found to be playing a pivotal role.

To add to these crucial findings, it was also found that the degree of expression of Oct-4 gene in a stem cell determined the fate of a cell. The gene governed the pluripotency regulation of a cell at transcription, translation and post transcription levels and functioned in close association with other core transcription factors to exhibit proper functioning, which contributed toward the pluripotency of cells. This property of Oct-4 is intriguing for experts working in the field of regenerative medicine.

The researchers from University of Virginia are hopeful that their study on the pluripotency of cells triggered by gene Oct-4 can prove useful for regenerative medicine. Owen commented on the potential of this research by saying, “Finding a way to augment the expression of this gene in adult cells may have profound implications for promoting health and possibly reversing some of the detrimental effects with aging.”