HOUSTON — Injections of DNA have the power to smooth wrinkles in aging skin, a new study finds. Scientists at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center say this procedure is safer than Botox, relying on a revolutionary therapy that boosts the production of collagen.
Botox works by paralyzing muscles. Nasty side-effects can include weakness, vision or breathing problems, trouble speaking or swallowing, and loss of bladder control — depending on the site of injection. Conversely, these new shots contain messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) — single stranded copies of a small part of DNA. The molecule carries a genetic code, instructing cells to make proteins.
In experiments with bald mice, researchers exposed them to UV radiation for 60 days to cause wrinkles. After 28 days, animals receiving injections of the mRNA had the same number of wrinkles as mice that did not receive UV exposure.
To create this new treatment, study authors developed tiny carriers called EVs (extracellular vesicles) from human skin fibroblasts. The study in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering is the first to demonstrate the successful use of EVs as a pharmaceutical therapy.
“This is an entirely new modality for delivering mRNA,” says corresponding author Betty Kim, M.D., Ph.D., professor of Neurosurgery, in a university release. “We used it in our study to initiate collagen production in cells, but it has the potential to be a delivery system for a number of mRNA therapies that currently have no good method for being delivered.”
Using mRNA in medicine is a delicate process
The chemical is an extremely brittle biomolecule, making harnessing its power challenging. However, widespread deployment of mRNA vaccines to fight COVID-19 has greatly boosted its potential in medicine. Delivery requires a carrier to safeguard the fragile molecules into the target cells. This is typically done using synthetic fats that cause irritation and inflammation.
They are not always biocompatible and are difficult to direct to a specific tissue. These drawbacks do not create a significant problem for vaccines but can be limiting for other therapies.
Prof. Kim and her colleagues used EV-loaded mRNA to program skin cells to produce collagen in the lab rodents and reduce wrinkle formation. The payload replaced lost collagen in the deep dermal layers of the skin in mice experimentally aged using light. The therapeutic EVs were delivered using a microneedle array patch that was applied to the skin for 15 minutes, delivering the drug uniformly. The single injection improved collagen production in the targeted area for nearly two months.
“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,” Prof. Kim says. “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.”
Experts say the technology has the promise to serve as a universal mRNA delivery platform to treat various diseases beyond collagen replacement.
South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.