New York: Scientists have found that reducing insulin prolongs life in a series of experiments with worms.
The discovery could lead to specific anti-ageing drugs and new treatments for age-related diseases such as heart problems and some cancers, helping people to live longer.
The new study found that reducing insulin levels helps fight off free radicals, the harmful chemicals that damage cells and are thought to have a role in triggering cancers and other diseases
Insulin, which is also used in the treatment of type 1 diabetes, is produced in the pancreas in response to eating, and allows sugar to be converted into energy and to transport it to cells.
Dr Keith Blackwell, associate professor of pathology at Harvard Medical School, genetically manipulated tiny worms so that the insulin in their bodies was less effective.
This, in turn, boosted the activity of a master gene, called SKN-1, which forms part of the body’s defences against free radicals. As a result, the worms lived for longer.
Dr Blackwell, whose work was published in the journal Cell, said: “This has implications for basic biology since under some circumstances insulin may reduce the defences against the damaging effects of oxidative stress more than we realise.
“If we as people have these same stress defences and if we could learn how to maximise their potential, this might be of significant benefit in various diseases such as diabetic and vascular complications. The major implication is that we have found something new that affects lifespan and ageing.”
The worms, called Caenorhabditis elegans, are frequently used by scientists because their genetic make-up has been found to be very similar to that of humans.
Dr Blackwell and colleagues will now repeat their experiments in mammals.
The hope is that developing drugs or other therapies that could fine-tune the activity of the SKN-1 master gene would lead to increased resistance to chronic diseases and boost longevity.
Experiments going back to the 1930s have shown that restricting food consumption in laboratory animals including worms, rats and monkeys can extend lifespans.
There has been little firm evidence this could be applied to humans.
However, this has not stopped more than 1,000 people from joining the Calorie Restriction Society, a California group which believes that eating less than half the recommended 2,000 calories a day can lead to physiological changes that slow the ageing process.
There are natural products, already available on the market, such as the Life Extension Metabolic Modulator, which contains beta-glucans and cytokinins, which help the body reduce insulin levels.
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