THURSDAY, June 17, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- In the latest report on a promising anti-aging strategy, scientists provide a detailed description of how a simple pill could one day help brains and other essential organs work better late in life.
The pill would increase activity of a gene that produces molecules called sirtuins, which block the programmed process by which the body rids itself of aging cells, said Haim Y. Cohen, a senior research fellow at Harvard Medical School.
A report in the June 18 issue of Science by Cohen and his colleagues focuses on the gene for one sirtuin, SIRT1. One study showed that rats fed a low-calorie diet produced more SIRT1 than those allowed to gorge themselves on unlimited food, the report said.
Experiments with human cells grown in the laboratory showed that SIRT1 reduces the activity of a factor known as Bax that encourages the programmed cell death process called apoptosis.
Those experiments confirm previous work explaining why low-calorie diets can extend life, Cohen said. Work along these lines has been done before, not just at Harvard but at several other institutions.
"In any organism, you can extend lifetime by 30 to 40 percent if you cut calories by 30 percent," Cohen said. "This paper shows that you can hold back apoptosis by increasing the amount of SIRT1 that is produced."
Studies have shown that a low-calorie diet does not extend the life span of animals bred to lack sirtuins, Cohen said.
The hunt now is on for molecules that can target the SIRT1 gene in specific organs, such as the brain, he said. "If you delay cell death in the brain, you allow the organ to function longer," he said.
The Harvard group is one of several in the forefront of anti-aging research, with sirtuins playing a central role. A year ago, the Harvard researchers reported that resveratrol, a compound found in red wine, can extend cell life.
The researchers already are testing sirtuin-promoting drugs in animals. The commercial possibilities of the work are clear. The Harvard researchers have ties with Biomol Research Laboratory, a Pennsylvania biotechnology company, and scientists in other laboratories working on sirtuins have comparable relationships.
Cohen will not predict how long it might take for a viable product to emerge from research, but he tends toward the optimistic.
"I'm not sure that it will take a very long time in the laboratory," he said.
A comprehensive look at efforts to extend life span can be found at the Alliance for Aging Research.