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January 4, 2011

Anti-Aging Gene

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Models of Health (2.04.03) - Geneticists are using new high-tech tools to study animals that live long lives, hoping to identify genes that may cause aging.

Aging and Cancer (10.21.03) - Of all the possible causes of cancer the biggest is simply growing old. Scientists trying to understand why are turning to an age-old friend of bakers— yeast.


National Institute on Aging

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Most of us think aging is inevitable. But one scientist has committed her career to proving us wrong. As this ScienCentral News video reports, genetics research could lead to anti-aging drugs.

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What if there was a drug that made you feel like a 45-year old at the age of 90, and could eventually help you live to be 200? Scientists think it's possible, and are trying to make it a reality.

"A lot of people think that aging is something that just happens, it's inevitable— you know, we wear out like old cars do," says Cynthia Kenyon, professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the University of California at San Francisco. "But it turns out that that's not completely true."

Kenyon proved that in tiny roundworms called Caenorhabditis elegans. She altered a single gene, called daf-2, in the worms' DNA, and doubled their lifespan. "Normally this worm has a lifespan of just about two weeks," says Kenyon, "but when we change this one gene, now it lives twice as long, and it actually stays young longer than normal. So when the normal worms are on their last legs, so to speak, or in the nursing home, these altered worms are still moving around. They're much younger. So it's kind of like looking at someone who is 90, and thinking you're looking at a 45-year-old. That's the kind of change we're talking about."

But this doesn't mean there's only one gene that controls aging. Kenyon compares the process to conducting an orchestra. "We're changing a kind of master control gene," she explains. "And when we do that, lots of other genes in the worm's DNA are turned up or down. These different genes do different things to protect the animal from kind of the ravages of time. As a consequence, the animal can live much longer. And these different genes do different things: some of them make anti-oxidant proteins that protect the cells from oxidative damage; others…protect the cells from getting infections by bacteria. So basically, it's sort of like an orchestra, where you have the orchestra conductor, which would be the master regulator gene, controlling lots of subordinate genes— the flutes, the cellos, the violins— making them all play in concert, essentially. So you can get a dramatic effect— in this case, a doubling of lifespan."

Cynthia Kenyon and colleague
Kenyon recently took it a step further by altering daf-2 as well as hormones controlled by the reproductive system. "Now something almost magical happens, which is that the animals live six times as long as normal," says Kenyon, whose work was recently featured in Discover magazine. "And they stay young and healthy. These long-lived ones are also disease-resistant. And by that I mean, they don't get age-related diseases until they're much older than normal."

Kenyon's so optimistic in her quest to extend life that she founded a company, Elixir Pharmaceuticals, to eventually create an anti-aging drug for people. That goal could be more than a decade away, but if Kenyon succeeds, would she take such a drug herself?

"Yes, absolutely. I don't want to get old. And I don't think I'm the only person that feels that way. In fact, if you read Shakespeare's sonnets, so many of them are about the anguish of aging. People don't like to get old, they don't like to lose their abilities, their capacities. So for people who love life, like I do, what could be better?"

This research was published in the October 24, 2003 issue of Science, and the December 2, 1993 issue of Nature, and was funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

       email to a friend by Karen Lurie

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