Researchers, including one of Indian-origin, have identified a gene that can slow the ageing process throughout the entire body when activated remotely in key organ systems.
Researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles studied fruit flies and activated a gene called AMPK that is a key energy sensor in cells; it gets activated when cellular energy levels are low.
Increasing the amount of AMPK in fruit flies' intestines increased their lifespans by about 30 per cent - to roughly eight weeks from the typical six - and the flies stayed healthier longer as well.
The research could have important implications for delaying ageing and disease in humans, said David Walker, an associate professor of integrative biology and physiology at UCLA and senior author of the research.
"We have shown that when we activate the gene in the intestine or the nervous system, we see the ageing process is slowed beyond the organ system in which the gene is activated," Walker said.
Walker said that the findings are important because extending the healthy life of humans would presumably require protecting many of the body's organ systems from the ravages of ageing - but delivering anti-ageing treatments to the brain or other key organs could prove technically difficult.
The study suggests that activating AMPK in a more accessible organ such as the intestine, for example, could ultimately slow the ageing process throughout the entire body, including the brain.
Humans have AMPK, but it is usually not activated at a high level, Walker said.
"Instead of studying the diseases of ageing - Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, cancer, stroke, cardiovascular disease, diabetes - one by one, we believe it may be possible to intervene in the ageing process and delay the onset of many of these diseases," said Walker, a member of UCLA's Molecular Biology Institute.
Lead author Matthew Ulgherait, who conducted the research in Walker's laboratory as a doctoral student, focused on a cellular process called autophagy, which enables cells to degrade and discard old, damaged cellular components.
By getting rid of that "cellular garbage" before it damages cells, autophagy protects against ageing, and AMPK has been shown previously to activate this process.
Ulgherait studied whether activating AMPK in the flies led to autophagy occurring at a greater rate than usual.
When Ulgherait activated AMPK in the nervous system of fruit flies, he saw evidence of increased levels of autophagy in not only the brain, but also in the intestine.
Co-authors of the research, published in the journal Cell Reports, include Anil Rana, a postdoctoral scholar in Walker's lab; Michael Rera, a former UCLA postdoctoral scholar in Walker's lab; and Jacqueline Graniel, who participated in the research as a UCLA undergraduate.