Battling Nature (Part 1): Genetic Possibilities
The Antioxidant Connection
What's offering more clues, however, is the
study of animals whose genes can be very similar to human genes. University of
Colorado scientists have found several genes in roundworms, for example, that,
when mutated, allow the worms to live twice as long.
One of these genes controls how much
antioxidant the body produces, said lead researcher Thomas Johnson, professor
of behavioral genetics at the university's Boulder campus. When the gene is
mutated, more antioxidant is produced to fight free radicals, byproducts of the
body's energy-making process that cause aging by damaging tissues and cells.
Roundworms that have more of the antioxidant live twice as long as worms that
have the normal amount of antioxidant.
However, while antioxidant supplements may
have rid Walsh of age spots, the supplements, including vitamins A, E and C,
don't necessarily increase the body's ability to fight free radicals, Johnson
added, explaining that some studies are showing that the body produces less
antioxidant if it's already supplied through the diet.
On the Genetic Frontier
Information Johnson is collecting from
research could potentially help increase the human lifespan. Johnson recently
set up a company, Denver-based GenoPlex, that will try to develop drugs to
interfere with the aging process on the genetic level.
"It's impossible to predict what can
happen," he said. But "there's no formal reason why we couldn't
manipulate genes... in humans using drug approaches that would disrupt genes in
the same way."
Manipulating genes may be the way to go,
agreed Helen Blau, professor and chairman of molecular pharmacology at Stanford
University School of Medicine. She and her team of researchers have been
developing genetically engineered muscle cells, which could stimulate the body
to produce blood vessels. Reinvigorated blood vessels could prevent the
development of heart disease and poor circulation, as well as delay the muscle
atrophy and the difficulties in wound healing that afflict older
So far, the genetically engineered cells have
been successful at stimulating blood-vessel growth in mice, Blau said. With
this success, she will begin clinical trials in the near future to see if the
cells can cause blood vessels to grow in people.