Worm breakthrough offers hope for drugs to extend human lifespans

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Could we extend human lifespans using a drug? (Getty)

An experimental breakthrough with roundworms hints that it may one day be possible to develop drugs to extend human lifespans.

Researchers in Korea were able to “dial” the lifespans of tiny roundworms up and down by altering the activity of proteins that tell the creatures when to consume energy.

Humans also have these proteins, the researchers say, which hints at the possibility of developing drugs to promote longevity.

In tests, human cells also responded to the same protein changes.

Researchers altered the activity of proteins found in roundworm cells that tell them to convert sugar into energy when their cellular energy is running low.

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The roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans, a millimetre-long nematode commonly used in lab testing, enjoyed a boost in its lifespan when researchers tinkered with the protein.

Lead author of the study Sangsoon Park and his colleagues at the Department of Biological Sciences at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (Kaist) confirmed that increased production of the VRK-1 protein boosted the lifespan of the worm, which normally lives just two to three weeks.

Inhibition of VRK-1 production reduced its lifespan.

UNSPECIFIED - FEBRUARY 23: Nematode or Roundworm (Nematoda). Artwork by Rebecca Hardy. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)
Researchers were able to extend the lifespans of nematode worms. (DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Professor Seung-Jae V. Lee from Kaist said: "This raises the intriguing possibility that VRK-1 also functions as a factor in governing human longevity, and so perhaps we can start developing longevity-promoting drugs that alter the activity of VRK-1.”

When the research team performed similar tinkering with cultured human cells, they found they could also replicate this ramping up and down of the VRK-1-to-AMPK process that occurs in roundworms.

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The research also points in an interesting direction for investigating new therapeutic strategies to combat metabolic disorders by targeting the modulation of VRK-1.

Metabolic disorders involve the disruption of chemical reactions in the body, including diseases of the mitochondria.

The researchers caution that further research still needs to be carried out to better understand how VRK-1 works to activate AMPK, as well as figure out the precise mechanics of how AMPK controls cellular energy.

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