Einstein said something to the effect that "If we had all the answers, we wouldn't call what we do research, would we?" So we don't have all the answers yet, but researchers are chipping away at what we don't know about aging.
Three recent findings may portend finding the Senescent Factor (SF) fairly soon. The work on telomeres – the end sections of our chromosomes that get shorter each time a cell divides – by Drs. Calvin Harley of the Geron Corp. of Menlo Park, Calif., and Jerry Shay of The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, Texas, is exciting.
They have found that a product called telomerase can lengthen the telomeres, thus allowing a cell to divide more than the usual 50 times. Dr. Shay now has cell lines that have divided almost 500 times. HCOA Faculty Associate Dr. Peter Hornsby has a cell line with over 200 divisions. And the remarkable finding thus far is that neither researcher's cell line has become immortal, leading us to the much hoped for outcome that we can perhaps increase the number of cell divisions beyond previous levels without causing cancers to develop.
Dr. David Snowdon, from the University of Kentucky, directs the Nun Study at a convent in Mankato, Minn. He has shown that the memory loss and dementia so feared among people with Alzheimer's disease may not be due to the Alzheimer's alone, but to tiny strokes, which may be preventable by something as simple as taking an aspirin a day. And, in an article in Nature, Ronald L. Davis and his associates at the Huffington Center on Aging in Houston, have cloned a gene they named Volado. This gene may play an important role in the way we learn, especially in preventing short-term memory loss, which is a common complaint expressed by older people and their caregivers.
And yet another finding has excited the research community: In the Sept. 1, 2000, issue of Science, researchers at the Buck Institute on Research and Aging in Novato, Calif., reported on their use of a synthetic drug (SCS) that extended the lives of laboratory worms by 50 percent. The researchers found that the synthetic enzymes can mimic the anti-aging action of naturally occurring antioxidants in living organisms. The big question is this: Can oxidative stress and its negative impact on life span can be counteracted by drug intervention in humans? Only clinical trials and time will tell. Stay tuned.
These findings augur well for the first part of the 21st century being an exciting period for aging research. This is altogether fitting as the United Nations had designated 1999 as the International Year of Older Persons leading up to the year 2000 when we first felt the optimism of the advent of a new century, a new millennium, a new era in human understanding of who we are, why we age, and how we might extend our active life spans to ages no one previously thought possible. We look forward to even greater accomplishments in the future.