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Scientists Find New Clues to Aging

Mutant Protein Involved in Premature Aging Condition May Also Play Role in Normal Aging
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

June 13, 2011 -- A mutant protein known to be involved in the rare premature aging condition known as progeria appears to play a role in normal aging, too, scientists report. The mechanism that triggers premature aging also seems to trigger normal cell aging.

The finding is expected to offer new clues about aging.

"We have learned something fundamental about the way your cells and mine are programmed to have a limited life span," says researcher Francis Collins, MD, PhD, director of the National Institutes of Health. "It looks like it is not just a passive process."

In the new research, Collins and his colleagues focused on the interaction between the mutant protein known as progerin and telomeres, the protective caps on the ends of chromosomes. Telomeres are often compared to the plastic tips on the ends of shoelaces.

As telomeres shorten, cells die.

Building on what they knew about the mutant protein in people with progeria, the scientists examined cells from healthy people. They found that the same mechanism or pathways may help explain both the rare condition and normal aging.

The new findings ''really do increase our confidence that progeria is an important model of the aging process," Collins tells WebMD.

The research is published online in The Journal of Clinical Investigation.

Progerin: What's Known

Collins and his team have long focused on progerin. It is a mutated version of a normal cellular protein called lamin A. Lamin A is encoded by a normal LMNA gene. Its job is to help maintain the nucleus of the cell, which holds genetic information.

In 2003, Collins' team found that a mutation in this LMNA gene leads to the rare premature aging condition progeria. It is also known as Hutchinson-Gilford progeria syndrome.

The condition occurs in one of every 4 million to 8 million people worldwide, says researcher and co-author Kan Cao, PhD, assistant professor of cellular biology and molecular genetics at the University of Maryland. Those affected have shortened life spans, typically living only about 13 years, Cao tells WebMD.

The children have hair loss, premature hardening of the arteries, and skeletal abnormalities. They usually die of cardiovascular complications, she says.

In 2007, the scientists found that cells in people without progeria also produce a small amount of progerin, even when they don't carry the mutation.

Focus on Progerin and Telomeres and Aging

In the current study, the scientists looked at millions of cells taken from seven healthy people, aged 10 to 92. They evaluated the cells in the lab for a year.

"We found the cells actually produce more and more mutant protein when they are getting old in vitro," Cao says. As the telomeres shorten, the end result is an accumulation of progerin, they found.

That of itself was not a huge surprise, she says.

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