Scientists may have identified a way prevent and treat age-related diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer's.

A recent study linked the aging process to the deterioration of bundles of cellular DNA. They also pinpointed genetic mutations underlying Werner syndrome, which is characterized by premature aging, the Salk Institute reported. The discovery was made through a combined process of stem cell and gene-editing technologies, revealing the role played by deterioration of DNA bundles called heterochromatin.

"Our findings show that the gene mutation that causes Werner syndrome results in the disorganization of heterochromatin, and that this disruption of normal DNA packaging is a key driver of aging," said Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, a senior author on the paper. "This has implications beyond Werner syndrome, as it identifies a central mechanism of aging-heterochromatin disorganization-which has been shown to be reversible."

Werner syndrome causes people to age prematurely, leading to age-related diseases early in life. The disease is causes by a mutation to a RecQ helicase-like gene, called WRN, that generates the WRN protein. The normal form of this protein is an enzyme that works to maintain the structure of human DNA, but when it is mutated it can disrupt the repair of this DNA and gene expression linked to premature aging.

Until now, researchers were not sure how exactly these disruptions occurred in the cellular process. In the recent study, the researchers worked to fill in these gaps by creating a cellular model of Werner syndrome though the combined technique. The findings showed the deletion of WRN led to disruptions to the structure of heterochromatin.

"Our study connects the dots between Werner syndrome and heterochromatin disorganization, outlining a molecular mechanism by which a genetic mutation leads to a general disruption of cellular processes by disrupting epigenetic regulation," Izpisua Belmonte said. "More broadly, it suggests that accumulated alterations in the structure of heterochromatin may be a major underlying cause of cellular aging. This begs the question of whether we can reverse these alterations-like remodeling an old house or car-to prevent, or even reverse, age-related declines and diseases."

The findings were published in a recent edition of the journal Science.