What’s the secret to a long and healthy life? Scientists gathering in Sydney on Friday may have the answers.
At the inaugural Australian Biology of Ageing Conference, hosted by the University of NSW, more than 130 experts will discuss the latest research into prolonging life, maintaining health and slowing the ageing process.
Among them is keynote speaker Dr Darren Baker, who has found a way to increase the median lifespan of mice by as much as 35 per cent.
An Associate Professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the Mayo Clinic in the US, Dr Baker and fellow lead researcher Jan van Deursen conducted a study on senescent cells, or worn-out cells that can no longer divide.
“We know that these senescent cells accumulate with age and at sites of age-related diseases,” Dr Baker said. “So we developed a trick where we can remove these particular cells and we looked at these consequences.”
The researchers engineered mice so their senescent cells could be killed off by the injection of a drug. The mice received this treatment from 12 months of age, the equivalent of about 40 years in human terms.
Those mice had better heart and kidney function than the control group of mice whose senescent cells built up. They looked healthier, seemed less anxious, explored their cages more and developed tumours and cataracts at a later stage. They also lived longer, with median lifespan increases ranging from 17 to 35 per cent. And there were no adverse effects.
The findings may be significant for the future treatment of human diseases. Dr Baker said there was evidence linking senescent cells to numerous age-related diseases including Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, osteoarthritis and macular degeneration.
“What our study has shown is that the long-term removal of these [senescent cells] doesn’t seem to have negative consequences,” he said.
With numerous branches of medical science focused on addressing the problems of ageing, the conference has attracted Australian and international experts on metabolism, epigenetics, neurobiology, nutrition, genomics, and evolution.
“We think that ageing is a biological program that we can intervene in,” conference chair Lindsay Wu, from UNSW’s Laboratory for Ageing Research, said. “We think that our genes are telling our body to start degrading, and there’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to turn this process off.”
Dr Wu said the majority of non-communicable human diseases “can all be put down to the ageing process that takes place in our cells”, with a large proportion of health care dollars being spent on the older population.
“If it’s the case that we can make even mild progress in slowing down ageing, it means we can treat a whole range of diseases,” Dr Wu said. “We can treat diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, cardiovascular disease, all in one hit. And even a slight improvement in our ability to prevent age-related diseases would drastically reduce health care spending.”