U of C research team unlocks secret to premature aging

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In a race against time, University of Calgary researchers are trying to develop treatments that will increase the likelihood of longevity and delay the many health problems linked to old age.

Previously, faculty of medicine lead researcher Karl Riabowol and his colleagues studied Hutchinson-Gilford Progeria Syndrome, a rare condition where the physical signs of aging are greatly accelerated throughout childhood. Children with this premature aging syndrome don't usually live past their 13th birthdays.

According to Riabowol, HGPS was closely examined because it shared some obvious similarities to normal aging. The research team has discovered that a family of tumour suppressors-- also known as growth inhibitors-- interact with the protein Lamin A and a mutation that leads to HGPS. Based on this evidence, they expect to increase their understanding of how HGPS is caused at the molecular level and how aging and cancer formation are closely tied.

"When we started looking more closely we found that if you disrupted the interaction between the tumour suppressors and Lamin proteins, the cells started to look like they're from a Progeria person," said Riabowol, also a U of C professor in the departments of biochemistry, molecular biology and oncology. "We believe that our report is one of the very first ones to help us understand at a molecular level how this Lamin A mutation is produced in the cell to make it look like it's aging."

Cell aging has also been strongly related to cancer, which often results from genetic instability. Seniors in their 80s are almost 1,000 times more likely to have cancer than people in their 20s.

"We believe that the aging cells in our body are responsible for this increased incidence of cancer," said Riabowol. "Once we understand what's happening in a normal aging cell, it'll give us some pretty strong clues about how we'll be able to counteract those things and to reduce the incidence of cancer later in life."

Studies have shown that as people get older, cells also age and don't replicate as frequently. This slows down the body's normal response to healing and prevents the immune system from fully functioning. As a result, seniors and patients suffering from HGPS are prone to infections and even death.

"The ability to fight off infections is directly related to the ability of those cells to divide," said Riabowol. "If we could get those cells to divide a little bit longer, a little bit better, then you could have a robust immune system up until your advanced years and you wouldn't have a lot of the elderly dying of things like pneumonia because they can't fight off an infection."

Riabowol said if he and his team can find a way to replicate cells over an extended period of time, people can live longer and healthier lives.

"If we can work out why these cells slow down and work out ways to allow them to divide longer in our bodies, then it's going to have huge beneficial effects in the population," he said.

The new research was published in this month's issue of Nature Cell Biology and was sponsored by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research, the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation and the Alberta Cancer Research Institute.