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IT SEEMS like the ultimate elixir-a drug that extends your lifespan while maintaining your youthful health and vigour. What's more, in the US it's already approved for human use. There is just one snag: to reap the benefits, you have to be a fruit fly.

Even so, the discovery promises to open up new leads in the quest to understand longevity and ageing, says Tom Kirkwood, an expert on ageing at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. "What we are looking at here is a pretty fundamental mechanism."

This is the first time that simply feeding a drug to flies has made them live longer. And in a twist that contradicts theories on ageing, there seems to be no price to pay for this extra time. The flies are as healthy and fecund as their untreated peers.

Kyung-Tai Min and a team of researchers at the National Institutes of Health and the California Institute of Technology made the discovery by accident when they were testing a drug called 4-phenylbutyrate (PBA) on flies with neurodegenerative disease. They found that feeding the drug extended maximum lifespan of healthy flies by over 50 per cent, and their average lifespan by one-third. Intriguingly, higher doses of the drug were either toxic or less effective, hinting that you need to strike a delicate balance to maximise the repair mechanisms in cells.

Previous studies suggest that reduced fertility and semi-starvation can extend fruit flies' lifespan, so the team wondered whether PBA was mimicking these effects. But when they weighed the flies and counted their offspring, they found they were normal.

To test the flies' resistance to stress, they then starved them and fed them a chemical that generates free radicals. But far from having to pay for their longevity with a weaker constitution, the PBA flies survived better than the controls. "We are going to test more, but so far, it seems they are perfect," says Min. Kirkwood, however, is sceptical. "The drug might be incurring a
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Contact: Claire Bowles
claire.bowles@rbi.co.uk
44-207-331-2751
New Scientist
23-Jan-2002


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