Genetic test can reveal your biological age

Friday, 16 August, 2019

Genetic test can reveal your biological age

Scientists from the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology IME have developed a method that can check the condition of the genome, helping to inform people how youthful their bodies actually are.

In the past it was thought that a person’s DNA remained unchanged throughout their life, but today we know the genome can change during ageing, in a process known as methylation. During methylation, small methyl groups gradually accumulate at certain locations in the DNA. This can switch genes off and increase the probability of genetic mutations at specific points, which can then result in disease.

“On the other hand, methylation is a natural process which takes place in every human body over time,” said Professor Carsten Claussen of Fraunhofer IME. Methylation also controls, for example, certain biological processes in the body.

But when methylation becomes abnormal, problems may result. Our lifestyle, diet, smoking, alcohol and other environmental factors can also influence the level of methylation in our genomes.

“The changes in methylation indicate to some extent how the body is ageing,” said Prof Claussen. Scientists can therefore determine a person’s biological age based on the degree of DNA methylation.

With this in mind, Prof Claussen and his team joined forces with the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Information Technology FIT to develop a method for measuring biological age and have implemented the method as a demonstrator. In collaboration with Fraunhofer IME, diagnostics company cerascreen has commercialised a Genetic Age Test based on this demonstrator.

The test for determining biological age. Image© cerascreen GmbH.

The first phase of the project was for Prof Claussen and his team to develop an algorithm capable of identifying the methylation patterns which can be used to reliably predict age. He said, “The algorithm is using previously unknown areas of the genome to predict age, which is a very exciting discovery.”

The Genetic Age Test sees users take a buccal swab sample using a sterile cotton bud, which they send to the laboratory by post. The lab then conducts methylation analysis using next-generation sequencing to determine the methylation state of the DNA. Fraunhofer IME’s AI software is then used to analyse this data and derive the biological age.

Initial tests conducted on approximately 150 subjects have shown that the algorithm works very well. Estimates of biological age for healthy individuals came remarkably close to the actual chronological ages of the subjects.

cerascreen is primarily interested in offering the service as a lifestyle product to health-conscious individuals who would like to know how fit or biologically young their bodies are, whereas the Fraunhofer scientists are focusing on possible future medical applications. The researchers are now looking for compounds that are capable of specifically altering the methylation of certain genes in the hope of delaying the ageing process and potentially preventing the development of diseases.

“Today there are enormous databases with thousands of compounds we want to test in the laboratory to find out whether they are effective in altering the methylation of individuals,” said Prof Claussen. The development of the active compounds will take place in the next phase of the project.

Fraunhofer FIT is meanwhile developing an application which unites data processing, analysis and evaluation in a single user interface. As the researchers, laboratory technicians and bioinformatics specialists involved have to work in different environments, the demonstrator unifies all the functions in a single application with intuitive visualisation tools.

“Now we can link the methylation information with genes and compounds identified from international publicly accessible databases in order to rank the targets for therapeutic intervention,” said Fraunhofer FIT’s Carina Goretzky.

Top image caption: Data processing, analysis and evaluation are unified in a single user interface. Image© Fraunhofer IME/Bernd Müller.

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