Glimpsing the aging process with a tiny worm

Modern medicine is constantly searching for ways to help people live longer and healthier lives, yet the secrets behind how we age can be elusive. Could a tiny worm hold the answer? Researchers in Ohio believe that answer might be “yes.”

A team at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine and University Hospitals Health System says it has identified a new molecular pathway that can affect the life and health spans of a small worm known as Caenorhabditis elegans (see-no-rab-DITE-iss eh-leh-GANZ). The same pathway is also present in mammals.

In results published in the journal Nature Communications, the team said by adjusting levels of proteins known as Kruppel (KRUH-pel)-like transcription factors, or KLFs, they were able to increase or decrease the lifespan of the worms. Those with higher amounts of KLFs lived longer than those with smaller amounts of the proteins. KLFs naturally decrease with age.

Sustained levels of the proteins might help to prevent age-related vascular deterioration and decrease the risk of associated high blood pressure, heart disease and dementia, the team noted.

KLF proteins control autophagy [aw-TOFF-a-gee], a process by which the body rids itself of cellular debris that can build up. As cells age, they lose the ability to perform those functions, leading to a buildup of toxic proteins. The worms without KLFs cannot maintain autophagy and die early.

Next, the researchers said they will seek to determine how the autophagy process works in cells that line the blood vessels, and how the process contributes to vascular function. They expect big things to come from their study of the tiny worms.

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