UCLA biologists believe they could have found a way to delay the onset of Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, stroke, cardiovascular disease and other age-related diseases.
In a study on fruit flies, the researchers were able to substantially improve the animals’ health while significantly slowing their aging by removing damaged mitochondria – the tiny power generators within cells that control cells’ growth and determine when they live and die – from middle-aged fruit flies.
“It’s like we took middle-aged muscle tissue and rejuvenated it to youthful muscle,” said David Walker, a UCLA professor of integrative biology and physiology, and the study’s senior author. “We actually delayed age-related health decline. And seven days of intervention was sufficient to prolong their lives and enhance their health.”
To leave the fruit flies with only healthy mitochondria, the UCLA biologists increased levels of a protein called Drp1 in the flies, beginning when the flies were one month into their two-month lifespan.
At essentially the same time, the biologists proved the importance of the flies’ Atg1 gene by turning it off, which rendered the flies’ cells unable to eliminate the damaged mitochondria, even with increased levels of Drp1 being used to break up mitochondria.
This proved that the Atg1 gene is needed to dispose of the damaged mitochondria.
“We think the fact that the mitochondria become larger and elongated impairs the cell’s ability to clear the damaged mitochondria,” Walker said. “And our research suggests dysfunctional mitochondria accumulate with age, rather than being discarded.”
Many of the features of aging demonstrated by fruit flies are similar to those of humans at the cellular level.
The UCLA biologists hope that the technique used to slow the ageing process in fruit flies could eventually help humans by slowing aging and delaying aging-related diseases.
Especially encouraging is the fact that the new approach was effective even after a short time because long-term use of nearly any drug can have harmful side effects in humans.
The team said one of the long-term goals of the research is to develop pharmaceuticals that would mimic the effects of Drp1, in order to extend people’s lives and lengthen people’s “health spans,” or the number of healthy years in their lives.