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50+: Live Better, Longer

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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 people.

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.

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