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Researchers discover common cause for aging and age-related disease

Why do serious diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer's and Huntington's mainly hit us in middle age or later? The links between aging and age-related diseases have proved elusive.

In studies of the powerfully informative roundworm, C. elegans, UCSF scientists have discovered that a class of molecules found in the worms and in people can both prolong life in the worm and prevent the harmful accumulation of abnormal proteins that cause a debilitating Huntington's-like disease. The finding appears to be the first evidence in an animal of a link between aging and age-related disease.

The molecules, called "small heat-shock proteins," are known to assemble into complexes that bind to damaged or unfolded cellular proteins and prevent them from forming into harmful aggregations.

"We think we've found an important physiological explanation for both aging and age-related disease," said Cynthia Kenyon, PhD, the Herbert Boyer Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics at UCSF and senior author on a paper describing the work in the May 16 issue of SCIENCE. "The question of why older people are more susceptible to so many diseases has been a fundamental, unsolved problem in biology. Our findings suggest a beautiful molecular explanation, at least for this protein-aggregation disease.

"By preventing damaged and unfolded proteins from aggregating, this one set of proteins may be able to stave off both aging and age-related disease. The small heat-shock proteins are the molecular link between the two."

The growing roster of diseases thought to be caused by protein clumping or aggregation -- Alzheimer's, Huntington's, Parkinson's, prion diseases -- suggests that the small heat shock proteins may influence the onset of many age-related ailments, the researchers say. The pharmaceutical industry is already exploring ways to increase the activity of heat-shock proteins. The research by Kenyon's laboratory indicates that if these drugs work, they may n
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Contact: Wallace Ravven
wravven@pubaff.ucsf.edu
415-476-2557
University of California - San Francisco
15-May-2003


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