April 16 (HealthDay News) -- Worms are providing scientists with new insights into how cells and tissues may stay youthful over the long term.
A protective mechanism used by cells to stay alive when oxygen levels are low (called a hypoxic response) promotes longevity and helps defend against some age-related diseases, a new study finds.
"This is a completely new pathway for aging and age-associated disease," senior author Dr. Matt Kaeberlein, an assistant professor of pathology at the University of Washington, Seattle, said in a university news release.
His team found that nematode worms live longer if they're also able to switch on the hypoxic response when oxygen levels are normal. In addition, the worms' cells contain fewer toxic proteins that might accumulate and clump together as they age.
The study is in the April 16 issue of the journal Science.
Buildups of toxic protein occur in the brain cells of people with Alzheimer's disease, Huntington's disease and a number of other degenerative conditions seen in the elderly, the researchers noted. Learning more about the cellular mechanisms that prevent accumulation of toxic proteins could help researchers find new treatments for these age-related diseases.
"The (study) findings suggest that hypoxic response promotes longevity and reduces the accumulation of toxic proteins by a mechanism that is distinct from both dietary restriction and insulin-like signaling. It appears to be an alternative pathway," Kaeberlein said.
"However, we don't know if future studies might reveal that all of these different genetic pathways converge somewhere down the line into a common mechanism for delaying the effects of age," he added.
The key factor that controls hypoxic response is called HIF, and the UW researchers are now trying to determine how HIF protects the worms from aging. In both worms and humans, HIF regulates the activity of several factors that play a role in aging and resistance to stress.
"If we can understand at a very detailed level how HIF is slowing aging, we may be able to use that information to develop effective therapies for treating age-associated diseases in people," Kaeberlein said.
SOURCE: University of Washington, news release, April 16, 2009