Researchers have invested a lot of time and energy into discovering ways to keep the body young. Age, they say, is simply another disease for which a cure can be found.
A new study out of the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre in Madrid has discovered one potential link in the cure for aging. It is a protein call p53.
In the study, a team of cancer specialists looked at cells from mice that were genetically engineered to produce extra amounts of p53.
P53 is thought to boost the body’s antioxidant activity, which helps to keep cells younger, longer.
P53 is actually well known in cancer research. In fact, scientists know more about p53 than about any other gene or protein. It seems the protein helps target and get rid of cells with broken DNA, or cells poorly supplied in oxygen. These are the cells that have a high risk of becoming cancerous.
P53 is helped by a chemical scientists have called Arf. Arf lets p53 know that a particular cell is in trouble and marks it for elimination.
Because p53 and Arf have this cancer-fighting ability, the Spanish team developed a genetically engineered strain of lab mice that produces extra-high quantities of the two proteins. It was then that the Madrid researchers discovered that these rodents happened to live longer than other mice.
The researchers aren’t sure just how p53 keeps cells young, but they think it delays aging for exactly the same reason that it prevents cancer.
“In the aging field, everyone agrees that aging is produced by the accumulation of faulty cells,” said senior researcher Manuel Serrano. And it seems that p53 and Arf get rid of bad cells that cause cancer and speed up the aging process. “By having more p53, mice will have more strict quality control for cells, hence less cancer and less aging,” Serrano said.
The researchers say p53 may also explain why cancer rises near the end of any mammal’s life span. This alarming rise isn’t linked to the number of years something lives — a mouse can live for three years, a human for 80, for example. The rise always occurs near the end of a particular animal’s expected life span, regardless of how long their life expectancy is.
So, “The fact that we have evolved to be such a long-lived species probably requires that we can fight cancer [longer], and p53 probably helps humans do that,” said Felipe Sierra, director of the Biology of Aging Program at the U.S. National Institute on Aging.
Sierra believes p53 and Arf play a key role in keeping cancer away throughout youth and middle age, but this effect may lessen in old age.
P53 and Arf are produced naturally in the body. Although drug companies have made compounds that increase p53 in the body, they have yet to be tested for clinical safety.