DRUGS to slow down the ageing process could be available within 20 years, according to University of Sunderland researchers.
Members of the university's molecular gerontology team believe they are on the brink of establishing a clearer link between genes and ageing.
Their discovery could lead to drugs that would counteract the symptoms of old age, from wrinkles and muscle wastage to senility. But it is unlikely such measures would extend people's lifespan.
Team leader Malcolm Goyns, professor in molecular gerontology at Sunderland, has isolated a small group of genes among the tens of thousands found in brain, liver and heart tissue, which show changes in activity during ageing. The activity of most genes remains constant.
"It is our belief that these genes, which show changes in activity during ageing, underlie the physiological processes of ageing," he said. "Within 20 or 30 years we may have drugs to counteract the physiological process of ageing."
The link between genes and the ageing process is widely accepted. Established research has shown that long-living parents tend to have long-living offspring. Different species have different maximum lifespans. Women tend to live longer than men, and there are genetic differences between the sexes, Professor Goyns said.
"A lot of people have the idea that ageing occurs because you wear out, like a machine. But this is a misunderstanding. Ageing is not a random disintegration of cells - there is a genetic factor involved."
Professor Goyns studied tissue from the brain, liver and heart of young and old rats, and analysed patterns of "gene expression". Genes produce protein, and their activity levels can be monitored by the amount they produce. In the tissue samples, he detected between 10,000 and 15,000 genes that were "switched on" at any one time, but only 200 of them showed changes in their levels of activity through the ageing process.
"We are not seeing a general gradual decline in gene activity," Professor Goyns said. "We are seeing specific changes in activity in a small group of genes. Some genes become more active with age."
He thinks it will take another year before he has "characterised" the isolated genes through DNA sequencing, identifying the kind of protein the genes produce. The next step will be to determine the functional significance in terms of age-related physiology.
"Symptoms of old age, like frailty, muscle wastage, and the degeneration of the neurons are under the specific control of genes which may be possible to counteract," Professor Goyns said. "Once we've characterised the isolated genes, they can become the target for drug discovery programmes."
Although they are confident they can counteract the symptoms of ageing, the Sunderland researchers have not yet found evidence indicating that the maximum human lifespan of about 120 years could be significantly extended.
Professor Goyns also believes that his related studies could have a major impact in treating cancer.
"Cancer is a disease of the middle and old ages, and cancer cells arise in old tissue," he said. "Yet cancerous cells' ability to proliferate seems to show that they are very young cells which have overcome the ageing process."
He is bidding for sponsorship with "a major biotech company" to further the work and next year intends to study genes in a wide range of human tumours, looking for consistent patterns. "This could become an ideal target for a drug discovery programme for an anti-cancer drug," Professor Goyns said. "But we're not quite onthe brink of discovering a cure for cancer."