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Scientists Find Fruit Fly Gene That May Delay Aging

Updated Sep 11, 2014, 02:04pm EDT
This article is more than 9 years old.

A team of biologists from UCLA announced they've discovered a gene that could be used to slow aging and lead to longer life. In lab studies conducted in fruit flies, the scientists identified a cellular mechanism for boosting the body's ability to flush out the cellular debris linked to many age-related diseases.

Activating the gene, called AMPK, increased the fruit flies' lifespans by almost a third and kept them healthier right up to the end. This would be like a 75-year-old getting another 24 years, not just of life, but of good health.

"This research brings us closer to understanding aging at a cellular level and has implications for delaying the onset and slowing the progression of many of the major diseases of aging," says David Walker, associate professor at UCLA and senior author of the study, published in Cell Reports.

Led by grad student Mathew Ulgherait, the team focused on the gene AMPK and its role in boosting autophagy, the cellular housecleaning process that rids the body of damaging waste products.

Finding ways to boost autophagy has been a key target of anti-aging research because buildup of protein plaques and other kinds of cellular detritus can lead to age-related diseases, most specifically Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and other neurodegenerative disorders.

By activating autophagy, which literally means to "self-eat," AMPK helps flush out this cellular garbage and prevents it from gumming up the neurological works. (Related research has shown that the common diabetes drug Metformin may slow aging by activating AMPK.)

Scientists in the aging field have long known that calorie restriction can extend life span, and past studies have shown that AMPK and another gene, Sirtuin 1, have important functions in this process. "Both spring into action when calories are restricted," says  Leonard Guarente, Director of the Glenn Laboratory for the Science of Aging at MIT.

The UCLA study is consistent with that body of knowledge, Guarente says. "I think the link between AMPK, SIRT1, calorie restriction, and longevity has been established in mammalian systems," Guarente says. "It's nice, but not totally surprising that AMPK would extend life in fruit flies."

There's another important finding in the study as well: The scientists switched off a second gene, called Atg1, to conclusively demonstrate causation, rather than correlation, between increased autophagy and longevity. "When we genetically impaired autophagy, the anti-aging effects disappeared," Walker explains.

What's notable about AMPK as a potential anti-aging treatment is that when the gene is activated in one area, such as the intestine or nervous system, it appears to slow aging throughout the body, not just in that system.

To help humans live longer, scientists have to find treatments that protect all the different organ systems affected by aging, since it's not practical to try to treat them one by one. Delivering treatments to the brain, for example, poses particular challenges. Ulgherait and Walker's research suggests  the possibility of future treatments administered via the intestines, say, but targeting other - or all - areas of the body.

"We tend to think about treating the diseases of aging one by one, looking for cures for cancer, Alzheimer's, diabetes, heart disease, and other conditions," says Walker. "But a major risk factor for all of these is simply getting older. If we could better understand and treat the underlying cellular mechanisms that affect aging, we could be very optimistic that we can delay the onset and slow the progression of these diseases."

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