There is no gray hair or liver spots to tip you off, but the fruit flies in one lab are getting really old. And now scientists want to know if the same drug that's helped flies and other animals live longer could do the same for people.
"So there's a lot of buzz in the field about understanding how this might work," says Pankaj Kapahi, Ph.D., a researcher studying aging from the Buck Institute in Marin.
Kapahi's team helped document how the target of a drug called Rapamycin might actually trick the cells of living organisms into believing they're short of nutrients -- causing them to limit their growth and age more slowly.
"When you think about it from an evolutionary perspective, when an animal eats less, it signals to the body you can't invest in reproduction and growth, so you should go into a defense, sort of protective mode," says Kapahi.
In fact, slowing cell growth with Rapamycin involves the same principal as a life-extending technique known as diet restriction -- basically, severely cutting back on calories. It's still controversial in humans, but researchers have found that if you cut back enough on food intake in animals, their bodies will age more slowly.
To learn how that process actually works, Kapahi's team focused on a cellular pathway known as T.O.R., for Target Of Rapomycin. T.O.R. provides a link between nutrients and the growth engines inside a cell.
By interrupting T.O.R. with Rapamycin researchers were able to slow cell growth in worms and insects, and extend their lives.
Then, in another breakthrough late this year, a research team in Maine documented the same results in mice, which lived the human equivalent of 13 years longer after being given Rapamycin.
"So that's got us all excited that something that's seems to be that fundamental from plants to humans might be working to extend the lifespan of multiple species," says Kapahi.
Beyond longevity, studies are now underway to learn if Rapamycin can effectively slow the growth of cancer cells and possibly treat other effects of aging.
"Now there's a lot of evidence that it's going to protect against age-related diseases like macular degeneration, cancer, and diabetes," says Kapahi.
Research into Rapamycin received another boost recently. The National Institutes of Health awarded a $5 million grant to the University of Texas, which was involved in the mouse study published this year.