Biogerontology Finding the Fountain of Youth

Ever since humans realized what a wonderful planet this can be countless attempts have been made to keep us on it for as long as possible. For generations scientists, seers and sages would create lotions, potions and formulas they believed would give the drinker immortality. Now unless you know anyone who’s 450 years old, all attempts to create an elixir of life have failed.

However, scientists from a laboratory in Boston reckon longevity has been given a healthy boost by a chemical they are working with. The identity of this ‘magic formula’ is insulin, the hormone that controls the amount of sugar in our blood. Dr T. Keith Blackwell and colleagues at Harvard Medical School’s Joslin Diabetes Center discovered that by tweaking the insulin levels of nematode worms, a common animal for this kind of research, the tiny creatures lived a week longer than their typical two-week lifespan. It’s far too early to know how this might play out in humans but the findings provide new information on how insulin and lifespan might be related.

The scientists studied how insulin regulates a protein called SKN-1. This particular protein orchestrates an army of enzymes to defend cells against attack from free radicals. They found that lower insulin levels increased the activity of SKN-1 in the gut. This gave better protection for cells, thereby making the worms live longer.

It’s great news for worms and possibly for us too as humans have similar proteins to the species of worm known as ‘Caenorhabditis elegans,’ that was used in the research. The scientists say that insulin probably acts in the same way in our bodies to protect us from the free radicals contained in food. So perhaps by tweaking our insulin levels we could all live a little longer?

Well I wouldn’t go planning your 125th birthday party just yet; an elixir of life won’t be on the pharmacists’ shelves for a while. It does though open up a tantalizing new area for researchers according to Blackwell. “We’re understanding more about mechanisms that can be harnessed in a way that pushes back this tide of cellular damage,” he said. “There’s a lot of therapeutic potential to defend against chronic diseases and potentially expand lifespans.”