The fruit flies of youth

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The humble Drosophila melanogaster – the fruit fly.

It sounds like a miracle, but UCLA biologists say they have identified a gene that can slow the aging process when activated.

Working with fruit flies, UCLA scientists have used a gene called AMPK to increase the insects’ life spans by about 30 percent.

One of the team leaders, Associate Professor of integrative biology David Walker, says that when the gene is activated in the intestine or nervous system, the aging process can be slowed throughout the entire body.

AMPK can jump-start a process through which cells discard old, damaged cellular components before that so-called “cellular garbage” can damage the cells.

Walker says that could delay the onset of illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, linked to the buildup in brain cells of protein aggregates, a type of cellular garbage.

UCLA’s Walker says slowing the aging process and thereby staving off certain degenerative diseases is still many years away, but, he says, “that is our goal and we think it is realistic.”

He spoke with KCRW’s Steve Chiotakis about his research, which appears in the open-source journal Cell Reports.