September 23, 2004

The longevity gene

Researchers have discovered a gene that releases stored fat--a possible key to longer life:
Scientists have known for nearly 70 years that calorie restriction extends the life spans of mammals by as much as 50 percent, but just how it works has remained a mystery. Guarente believes he has found the answer, and that it could potentially lead to extended life spans for people, too. For more than a decade, Guarente has been gradually solving the puzzle with the ambitious goal of discovering how to slow the aging process in humans without imposing a thousand-calorie-a-day diet. In 1999, he came to the surprising conclusion that manipulating just one gene, SIR2, could affect longevity. Guarente became so convinced that his findings could lead to antiaging pills that in 1999 he cofounded Cambridge-based Elixir Pharmaceuticals to commercialize them. In June, Guarente and his colleagues published a paper in the scientific journal Nature that detailed how a version of the SIR2 gene in mice releases fat from storage tissue, which seems to have a direct effect on how fast the animals age. Although Guarente’s lab has yet to determine exactly why a reduction in fat allows animals to live longer, he’s confident that medicines that cause the mechanism to spring into action aren’t too far around the corner. “I think there’s going to be an ever growing clamor to take advantage of this,” Guarente says. And he believes life-span-lengthening medicines will be available within a decade.

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