Scientists believe we may be one step closer to anti-aging therapies, as a group of “aging genes” has been identified by researchers at Kings College London, detailed in a study published 20 April, 2012 in PLoS Genetics. These genes were found to be switched on and off by natural mechanisms called epigenetic factors, which can be triggered by external factors like one’s diet, environment and lifestyle. These factors crucially influence the rate of healthy aging and ultimately, longevity. With a greater understanding of how these newly identified genes work, researchers hope that in the future these ‘markers’ of biological aging may become possible targets for anti-aging therapies.
The study examined 172 twins aged between 32 and 80 years old, looking for epigenetic changes in the twins’ DNA. In order to analyse these changes in relation to chronological age, researchers carried out epigenome-wide association scans, and the results identified 490 age related epigenetic changes. Furthermore, analysis of DNA modifications in age related traits discovered a consistent relationship between epigenetic changes in four genes with lung function, cholesterol and maternal longevity. In order to ascertain when such changes may be prompted, a similar study was replicated with a younger test group of 44 twins aged between 22 and 61. This further study observed that a large fraction of the 490 age related epigenetic changes were also present in this younger group. These results suggest that a significant number of age related changes may be initiated early in life and consequently should help future researchers understand the biological mechanisms which underlie healthy aging and age-related deterioration and disease. Dr Bell, co-leader of the study asserted that future work would investigate how environmental factors can effect epigenetic changes.
Senior author Professor Tim Spector voiced the potential impact of these first results: ‘This study is the first glimpse of the potential that large twin studies have to find the key genes involved in aging, how they can be modified by lifestyle and start to develop anti-aging therapies. The future will be very exciting for age research.’ Whilst the study examined only a fraction of sites in the genome which carries such epigenetic changes, these initial results give weight for further, more comprehensive scans for epigenetic variation.
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