Wrinkled faces may not always be an inevitable part of ageing thanks to a ground-breaking new discovery.
Scientists have identified a natural way to regenerate the fatty cells that keep skin looking smooth and young.
Not only could this lead to spectacular anti-ageing treatments, it may also pave the way to scar-free healing of wounds.
Fat cells called adipocytes are normally found in skin but are lost when scars form and as a result of ageing.
Lack of adipocytes is one of the main reasons why permanent wrinkles become etched on the faces of older people.
Laboratory studies showed how hair follicles held the key to keeping healing skin scar-free and smooth by releasing a vital signalling molecule, called Bone Morphogenetic Protein (BMP).
BMP was found to instruct scar-forming cells commonly found in healing wounds, myofibroblasts, to transform themselves into adipocytes.
Lead scientist Professor George Cotsarelis, from the University of Pennsylvania in the US, said: “Essentially, we can manipulate wound healing so that it leads to skin regeneration rather than scarring.
“Typically, myofibroblasts were thought to be incapable of becoming a different type of cell. But our work shows we have the ability to influence these cells, and that they can be efficiently and stably converted into adipocytes.”
Tests of the process were conducted in both mouse and human scar-forming tissue grown in the laboratory.
Although the research focused on scarring, the discovery reported in the journal Science has much wider implications, said Prof Cotsarelis.
Adipocyte loss was a common complication of certain medical conditions such as HIV infection and a natural part of ageing, he pointed out.
Prof Cotsarelis added: “Our findings can potentially move us toward a new strategy to regenerate adipocytes in wrinkled skin, which could lead us to brand new anti-ageing treatments.”