This June, we saw that Ann Arbor researchers were adjusting the process of cell autophagy in order to fight cancerous tumors. (You can read our article on the subject here.) This September, life scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles have found that tapping into autophagy may prevent the inevitable: that is, the aging of the human body.
Autophagy is a way for cells to stay young and fresh by consuming their damaged organelles. To David Walker, an associate professor of integrative biology and physiology at UCLA, unlocking the potential of autophagy seemed like a clear-cut way to fight the diseases that come with old age all at once.
“Instead of studying the diseases of aging — Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer's disease, cancer, stroke, cardiovascular disease, diabetes — one by one, we believe it may be possible to intervene in the aging process and delay the onset of many of these diseases,” he says in a UCLA article. “The ultimate aim of our research is to promote healthy aging in people.”
To achieve this goal, Walker and his team isolated a gene called AMPK that triggers autophagy. When this gene was artificially activated in the intestines of fruit flies, it increased their lifespan by about 30%. In addition, the flies stayed healthier longer than they normally did. Walker is excited by this result particularly because of the fact that the gene can be triggered in the intestine, but the results affect the body at large. He contrasts this with the alternative of protecting the brain from aging by activating genes in the brain, which is very delicate and dangerous work. The intestine is a relatively easy place to activate genes; that is, the corresponding procedures are less invasive and risky.
Walker plans next to try activating this gene in humans, with the aforementioned goal of promoting healthy aging. “We are not there yet, and it could, of course, take many years, but that is our goal and we think it is realistic.”
The research was funded by two grants the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Aging and a Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award. For more information on research funding, grants, and awards at Los Angeles, have a look at our free UCLA Funding Report, available via the button below:
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