'Immortal' Genes Found by Science


Lois Rogers and Steve Farrar

July 4, 1999 (The Times of London Britain) -- Scientist believe they have discovered a group of genes that hold the key to "immortality." Experiments using fruit flies have identified genes that have the capacity to make a cell last indefinitely by repairing damage. When active, the genes make the insects live for up to three (3) times their normal life span. Theoretically, the flies could last longer -- if wear and tear of their wings and vital organs did not cause death first. The researchers predict that the same mechanism exists in humans, giving people born now the possibility of surviving well into the 22nd Century by reaching ages of 140 or more.

Prof. Michael Rose, professor of Evolutionary Biology at the University of California at Irvine, revealed last week that he has bred generations of fruit flies exhibiting ever stronger versions of the genes. By identifying the chemical compounds produced, doctors will ultimately be able to offer anti-aging cell-repair pills or injections for human patients.

Rose, a maverick scientist whose work has won grudging acceptance among researchers investigating the mechanisms of aging, said his latest generation of fruit flies can live for up to 130 days, almost three (3) times the normal span. Even then, he claims, the flies do not die of old age but are weakened by mechanical breakdown - their wings and the tips of their legs get broken off, leaving them unable to compete for food supplies.

Rose likens this effect to the fatal damage caused by conditions such as furring of the arteries in humans, which he argues is not part of the aging process, but a by-product of environmental damage caused simply by living. "Death rates go up sharply with increasing age, but once you go off the edge of that ramp, you reach a plateau where you are dependent on the quality of your cell repair capability," he said. "I believe there are already immortal people and immortal fruit flies. We just need to get the benefits of these genes conferring immortality at a younger age, before we suffer too much damage."

Scientists have long recognized the concept of immortality. Cancer cells, for instance, grow indefinitely. Biologists have learned to manipulate non-cancer cells and make them immortal. The genetic mechanism identified by Rose suggests that this phenomenon could rejuvenate the cells of an entire living creature. Within 25 years, more than a fifth of Britain's population will be over 66 and the number of people aged over 85 will have tripled. British scientists believe the benefits offered by the newly discovered cell repair genes should first be used to ameliorate the diseases suffered by elderly people, rather than to prolong life just for the sake of it.

The funding body "Research into Aging" is sponsoring cell studies along lines similar to the Rose project - investigating the genetic switches that trigger the onset of senescence and death. But its researchers hope to understand why some people reach 90 with little damage to their sight, hearing, and intellect, while others suffer dementia in middle age. Prof. Thomas Kirkwood of Manchester University, who is one of the world's leading experts on the mechanisms of aging, acknowledged the importance of such work. But he said, "There will be a number of such genes involved in these processes. The real value of this project is the opportunity it gives us to improve the quality of later years of life."

Scientists are also investigating aging in other animals, such as tortoises and crocodiles, which continue to grow throughout their lives and also die as a result of injury, disease, or starvation rather than cell deterioration. Rose's research suggests that they, too, possess the immortality genes but are unable to live for ever because of the rigors of everyday existence. According to Chris Wickenden, senior keeper of reptiles at the London Zoo, animals such as tortoises have lived for up to 120 years. The great survivors of the animal kingdom, the bi-valve shellfish such as clams and mussels, also grow throughout their lives. According to Dr. John Taylor, a scientist at the Natural History Museum in London, the most venerable species is a freshwater clam, Margaretifera margaretifera, that frequently makes it to 120 before dying. "It's an extremely slow-growing creature with a slow metabolism," he said.

Prof. Leonard Hayflick, professor of Anatomy at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine and one of the world's experts on aging, said: "The logic of Rose's work is indisputable. There are genes that indirectly determine longevity, but if rich people could buy treatment to increase their life span it would cause chaos."