p53 Gene at Crossroads of Cancer and Aging

January 3, 2002 (AP) -- "A natural protein that suppresses cancers may also help regulate aging," says a study that suggests mice age faster if the protein is overactive. The results "raise the shocking possibility that aging may be a side effect of the natural safeguards that protect us from cancer," noted Gerardo Ferbeyre of the University of Montreal and Scott Lowe of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Cold Spring Harbor, NY. They wrote a Commentary accompanying the mouse study in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature. The study was done by scientists at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and elsewhere.

The protein is called p53. Cells produce it at the direction of the p53 gene, which is the best-known example of a "tumor-suppressor" gene. Mice that lack p53 rapidly succumb to cancer The new work found that mice that appeared to have an overactive p53 protein -- because of a genetic mutation -- showed signs of premature aging, such as osteoporosis, organ shrinkage, and shortened Lifespan. Despite their rapid aging, the mice resisted tumor development, which fits with p53's anti-cancer effect.

"The results may simply mean the genetic mutation produces a highly abnormal disease, but they might also reveal a role for p53 in normal aging," Ferbeyre and Lowe wrote. "One disturbing possibility is that drugs used to treat cancer in young people might spur p53 activity and so speed up age-related disorders later on," they wrote.