In research involving fruit flies, biologists from the University of California at Los Angeles identified a gene that is able to slow the aging process across the body when activated in just one organ. This means that having enough of the gene in, for example, the intestine, could slow aging of systems beyond the digestive tract such as brain, bones, muscles and skin.
“We have shown that when we activate the gene in the intestine or the nervous system, we see the aging process is slowed beyond the organ system in which the gene is activated,” says David Walker, an associate professor of integrative biology and physiology at UCLA and senior author of the research.
In experimentation, scientists activated a gene called AMPK, a key energy sensor that exists in cells but does not activate unless cellular energy is low. By increasing the amount in the intestines of fruit flies, the flies lived 30 percent longer while staying healthy.
Walker says AMPK exists in humans, but rarely activated at a high level.
The fruit flies involved in the research were of the species Drosophila melanogaster, viewed as an appropriate model for human aging because all of its genes have been identified and scientists have learnt how to manipulate each one on an individual basis. Researchers say they worked with over 100,000 of them in the study.
The study could be key in orienting how science and medical research develops new approaches for healthy aging, an area of investigation which has traditionally looked at the body's systems individually to combat the ravages of time. It could also unravel the complications of delivering drugs to hard-to-reach organs like the brain if treating accessible organs such as the intestine with AMPK proves to be a reasonable solution.
“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,” says Walker, also a member of UCLA's Molecular Biology Institute. “We are not there yet, and it could, of course, take many years, but that is our goal and we think it is realistic.”