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Cancer drugs can slow ageing – scientists extended lifespan of fruit flies

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Posted June 29, 2015

Scientists at University College London were researching potential drug candidates that would stop aging processes in fruit flies. They found that adult fruit flies, given a cancer drug, live even 12% longer than average lifespan for these animals. This drug targets a specific cellular process that occurs in different animals, including humans, and delays the onset of age-related deaths by slowing the ageing process.

Fruit flies are often used to test effectiveness of drugs. This time scientists found out that fruit flies that receive cancer drugs, live up to 12% longer than average. Image credit: John Tann via Wikimedia, CC-BY-2.0

Fruit flies are often used to test effectiveness of drugs. This time scientists found out that fruit flies that receive cancer drugs, live up to 12% longer than average. Image credit: John Tann via Wikimedia, CC-BY-2.0

It is the first study like this, which demonstrates for the first time ever that a small molecule drug, which works by limiting the effects of a protein called Ras, can delay the ageing process in animals. The fruit flies that received the cancer drug outlived the control group simply by staying healthier for longer. Scientists say that the goal of the research was to understand the mechanisms of ageing and alter these processes, which lead to loos of function and diseases.

Dr Nazif Alic, co-first author of the study, said that they “studied this molecular pathway in flies because they are reasonably complex and yet age more quickly than mammals” and “were able to extend their lifespan both genetically and by using a cancer drug to target the Ras pathway”. These results provided scientists with the first evidence about potential for anti-ageing effect of drugs developed to dampen the Ras pathway.

The drug, called Trametinib, is used to treat skin cancer. It was chosen for the research because of its ability to inhibit Ras signalling as part of the ‘Ras-Erk-ETS’ cell pathway. Ras has been known to have a significant role in in cancer but it is also known to affect the ageing process. Even in previous studies yeast with modified DNA reduced Ras activity and it did expanded lifespan. It was one of the facts that inspired scientists to conduct this new study.

Adult female fruit flies were given trametinib with their food. At first scientists tested a smaller dose of 1.56 µM, which is approximately equivalent to a daily dose of the drug in human cancer patients. This increased average lifespan of flies by 8%. However, much higher dose of 15.6 µM increased the fruit flies’ average life expectancy by 12% over the average life expectancy of these animals.

Scientists also wanted to test the anti-ageing properties of the drug in later life. They gave the same moderate dose of 15.6 µM to fruit flies that were over 30 days old and had almost all stopped laying eggs. Even in these circumstances life expectancy increased by 4%. Because those flies that were exposed continuously to the drug from an earlier stage in life lived longer than those who began dosing later in life. Scientists say that it may indicate cumulative effect of the drug.

The researchers say that more than anything this study identifies the importance of the Ras-Erk-ETS pathway in ageing processes. This is a very important step in developing drugs made specifically to slow the ageing and increase lifespan of animals as well as humans.

Since the Ras protein plays a key role in cancer, there already are some drugs targeting it that have been approved for clinical use. Scientists say that during the time period of 10-20 years molecules from these drugs can be refined and anti-ageing treatments can be developed. The task is to avoid such adverse effects of cancer drugs. The next step towards this ultimate goal is to test the drug with more complex such as mice, and, later in future, to develop drug regime suitable for testing with humans.

To stop ageing processes and to live longer has been a dream of humanity for centuries. There were people who claimed to have discovered magic sources of youth or performed rituals to extend lifespan of naïve and hopeful people. However, researches like this remind us that there is no task too difficult for science and in the future effective anti-ageing drugs may be commonly found in drug stores.

Source: UCL

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