Scientists at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) report they have been able to “significantly slow aging” in fruit flies, and in the process, “substantially improve” the insects’ health. This age-delaying process, if successful, will have various bold impacts in the health and medical fields, among others.
By exploring multiple mechanisms that lead to aging in fruit flies, the UCLA team hopes to eventually develop a technique to slow aging and delay aging-related diseases in humans.
Suppose we could slow or even reverse the aging process in humans. We would likely delay the onset and progression of fatal diseases. The social return could be tremendous. As the population ages, the cost of healthcare increases exponentially. Age-associated illnesses (heart disease, cancer, arthritis, repertory diseases, and Alzheimer’s to name a few) require prolonged and expensive treatments. The cost to society in terms of both human suffering and financial burden is enormous.
If we could slow the aging process in humans, society would reap the benefits of a healthier, more productive population. A study in the Health Affairs journal (October 2013) suggests that in the US alone, we could save around $7.1 trillion over 50 years by delaying aging.
The results of the UCLA research on aging in fruit flies holds great promise for improving human lives. Researchers commonly use fruit flies in preliminary studies that may lead to benefits to people because 75 percent of the genes that cause disease in humans are also found in the fruit fly. Additionally, fruit flies have a short, simple reproduction cycle. Symptoms of disease and aging and effects of treatments can be observed in a matter of days.
UCLA Study on Aging
The UCLA research concentrated on the changes in mitochondria as the fruit flies aged. Mitochondria are organelles that control cell growth found in the cytoplasm of most cells. As the mitochondria age, they tend to become damaged and begin to accumulate in the brain, muscles, and other organs in the body. David Walker, UCLA professor of integrative biology and physiology and senior author of this study, explains, “When cells can’t eliminate the damaged mitochondria, those mitochondria can become toxic and contribute to a wide range of age-related diseases.”
The scientists observed that a protein called dynamin-related protein 1 (Drp1) declined as the fruit flies aged. With the reduction of Drp1, cells had difficulty removing damaged mitochondria. By increasing the levels of Drp1 in the fruit flies, the researchers found that the cells were able to break up the damaged mitochondria into smaller pieces and eliminate them from the body. As a result, the flies were rejuvenated becoming more energetic. Following the treatment, lifespans for female flies increased by 20 percent while that of males increased by twelve percent.
The researchers discovered that while Drp1 was essential to breaking up the damaged mitochondria, another mechanism was responsible for enabling the cells to eliminate the damaged mitochondria. The flies’ AuTophaGy related 1 gene (Atg1) is responsible for cells’ ability to dispose of damaged mitochondria.
The scientists also discovered another way to extend lifespan and improve the health of the fruit flies. A protein called Mitofusin (Mfn) causes the mitochondria to fuse together into larger pieces making damaged mitochondria removal. The researchers recognized that by turning off the release of Mfn, the mitochondria would be easier to remove. Anil Rana, UCLA project scientist, and the study’s lead author, states, “You can either break up the mitochondria with Drp1 or prevent them from fusing by inactivating Mfn. Both have the same effect: making the mitochondria smaller and extending lifespan.”
By exploring multiple mechanisms that lead to aging in fruit flies, the UCLA team hopes to eventually develop a technique to slow aging and delay aging-related diseases in humans. At least one bold idea Walker would like to see come to fruition is the development of pharmaceuticals that would mimic the effects of Drp1.
One day, Walker and the UCLA team’s bold ideas could result in humans living longer, healthier and more productive lives. In the meantime, the UCLA biologists can demonstrate they can slow aging and extend the lifespan of fruit flies.