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Long life linked to mutant gene

17th November 2009

One gene in particular can prevent cells from ageing, according to new US research.

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There seems to be a causal link between having the gene and living past the age of 100.

For the purposes of the study, the scientists combed through the genes of a certain population of Ashkenazi-descended Jews, all of whom were closely related and made easy study subjects.

All 86 of the people they studied had much higher levels of telomerase than other people, which they found protected the DNA of the study subjects.

The average age among the study subjects was 97.

The researchers looked for the gene that generated excessively high levels of telomerase in 175 of the descendants of the 86 original subjects, as well as in 93 people whose genes did not appear to favour long lives.

The difference between the people who lived longer turns out to be that they have more telomerase in their DNA.

Telomerase is an enzyme that adds a repeating sequence of DNA to the last 3 meters of people's genes.

The telomere ends of people's genes get shorter each time their cells replicate, and the enzyme telomerase replaces these disappearing end-parts.

Eventually, as people age, they run out of telomerase and the replication process begins to take sections from the DNA their body needs for its normal functioning.

So, in the 86 study subjects, the presence of a high amount of telomerase in their DNA meant that they aged much more slowly.

In October, three scientists received the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for working out the structure of DNA's telomere regions.

Yousin Suh, the lead author of the paper, said that his team's findings suggested that variants of telomerase help people by protecting them from diseases as they age.

They found a definite link between high levels of telomerase and genetic predisposition in centenarians.

The centenarians in the study also had a lower average body mass index than the people who did not have high levels of inherited telomerase, and better heart health.

Suh said that his team was now trying to understand how high levels of telomerase are inherited, and that they would look into the possibility of developing drugs that increase the body's level of telomerase overall.

However, Tim Spector of King's College said that giving people's cells more chances to divide could increase their chances of getting cancer.


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