Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Science of Aging

Since the beginning of time man has searched for the secret to immortality, so naturally modern day science has also joined in the cause. This ongoing quest for an elixir to life is discussed in "The genetics of Ageing" in Nature Magazine's most recent edition. Aging has been seen for a long time as simply the process of deterioration. It's previously been found that telomere maintenance is what determines the length of human lifespan and is the cause of rapid aging diseases like Dyskeratosis congenita or progeria. This sort of research was thought to hold the key to longer life, which may be partially true, but recent research has found evidence that other genetic factors may play an important role. The problem with lengthening telomeres is that mutant mice with enhance telomere length need to also be engineered as cancer resistant to survive as long as their telomere potential. Certain signaling pathways and transcription factors have been identified in small, comparatively short-lived organisms like yeast, worms, flies and mice. These types of life lengthening factors offer a new approach to immortality.

Most would think that this type of prolonging life would just eventually lead to humans suffering from late on-set diseases like Alzheimers for a longer time. Contrary to this belief scientists have found that these types of condition can also be combated by techniques to prolong life. Insulin and insulin like growth factors have been found to signal pathways that lead to aging. If these growth factors are inhibited, not completely deleted, it has been shown to increase the lifespan of mice, flies and worms. These insulin growth factors being knocked out in humans however is what can cause type 2 diabetes. Transcription factors and kinases such as AMP kinase and kinase targeting of rapamycin. The research is extensive and extremely complicated, as might be expected of discoveries involving the cure to aging. In general though scientists have found that certain factors like dietary restriction, heat and oxidative stress, reproductive signals, reduction of respiratory rates and chemo/thermosensory signals.

As opposed to completely genetically altering organisms or lengthening their telomeres in an invasive way scientists now look to maintain these telomeres and slow down other aging effects using mechanisms already in place in the body. By slightly altering a few genes scientists may one day be able to take advantage of the homeostatic pathways of humans to help them help themselves. These pathways are the cause of all aging we know today, wrinkling, muscle distrophy, loss of memory, tissue death and system failure. All of these could be stopped if the interacting pathways that control them are changed. Not only could we be living longer, but we could stay young for a long time, imagine going on a dinner date with a 50 year old who looks like they are 25. The potential for this type of research is really exciting and could open so many doors not only for prolonging lifespans of humans, but actually improving on the heath and wellness of these humans as well. Many genes and transcription factors are involved in the process of aging and much work has yet to be done, but one day hopefully we can unlock the key to improving and lengthening our lives.

-Tom Roper


  1. Although the lengthening of life sounds very enticing and is obviously in demand, researchers must think of the consequences of producing these results. By increasing the average age of the human population you would in effect increase the human population exponentially. Since in many countries there is already a population crisis, furthering this would increase the food shortages, poverty percentages and many other related issues. The Human population is the only population who has a greatly reduced natural selection on them and this would play right into this.

    Patrick Salome

  2. There is a lot of hype these days about a product that can reverse or slow down the aging process. I just saw an advertisement the other day how resveratrol has been shown to be the anti aging breakthrough. Personally I do not believe any of it. However, this article talks about how scientists are using mechanisms already in place in the body. This seems a lot more promising because they are altering the pathways responsible for causing aging.

    Posted by Ryan Brooks

  3. I agree with Patrick, as enticing as it sounds to lengthen to human life span, at this point in time I don't think we can afford to do so. I also agree that we'd be breaking down barriers that nature has put into place to essentially try to stabilize earth's population. Once food shortages and feasible land has been discovered there's really no reason why we couldn't try to lengthen the human life span. Science and technology has already pushed our lifespan 20-30 years. It would certainly be a break through if discovered.

    Posted by Charly Almonte

  4. I am very interested in what happens to humans when thier bodies age. Is there a way to prolong our life, but not only prolong it but to half a productive life in those later years. What I mean by that is long life when you can't walk or have cancer. This is not a high quality of life so what would be the point of extended life if it instead increased suffering. I feel the real problem s cancer, and other geriatic diseases. These problems are the highest priority, and without a solution, then long life is not worth it, in my opinion.

  5. It's true that when we age we lose our hearing or sight, develop cancer and generally become sickly. The point of the mechanism that this article is talking about however is a way to reduce all of the problem that come alone with aging, as well as prolonging life. That's what really struck me about the article. Old research has shown that lengthening telomeres can prolong life, which is true, but with this type of mechanism the chance of cancer still continue to increase. So organisms with artificially lengthened telomeres also must be cancer resistant to see benefits. Obviously prolonging the lives of everyone in the world would be devastating if we also continued to have children, but I'm sure that technology and research like this would produce very expensive treatments that would be unavailable to the already poverty stricken and starving nations of the world. It would be extremely interesting to see the controversy that might arise from a drug like this being produced, it would be a really influential technology to posses in today's society.

    -Tom Roper in response to own article