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Scientists find cell complexes that hold back ageing

© Mike Urwin, Newcastle University

By Ellie Buchdahl, 19 May 2014

Scientists in the UK have found restricting your diet could reduce your chances of premature ageing – and have identified the precise cell damage that can lead people to age more quickly.

Previous studies had shown that restricting calories could help people look and feel younger for longer, so the scientists looked at this and other known ‘anti-ageing’ factors.

Researchers at Newcastle University honed in on key energy-producing proteins in mitochondria – the power producers of cells.

© Thomas von Zglinicki
Complex cells: Professor Thomas von Zglinicki in the lab (Picture © Mike Urwin, Newcastle University) 

They found that cells with too many of these proteins were sloppy in building the complexes that are necessary for efficient power production, leading to a faster ageing path.

When deprived of nutrients, there were fewer of these proteins, complexes were built more effectively, cells worked better and animals lived healthier and longer lives.

‘Eureka moment’

Thomas von Zglinicki, Professor of Cellular Gerontology at the university’s Institute for Ageing and Health, said: ‘This was quite contrary to what we expected.

‘We would have expected that more of a good thing would have a good effect – especially when talking of these absolutely essential energy-producing proteins.

Want to meet the cellular sciences student from Japan who worked on this project? 
Click here to read about Satomi’s UK education experience

‘But we discovered that the longer-living mitochondria had fewer of these proteins. It appears that, if cells have more of them, some hang around and produce stuff that’s potentially damaging and a waste.’

It was a long research process – around three years – before the scientists could make their conclusion.

'I remember Satomi, the post-doctoral researcher who was working with me on this, coming to me after all that time and saying, 'I think I have an idea...’ Professor von Zglinicki said.

‘That’s what is fun about science,’ he added. ‘You don’t understand something, so you explore it, and then you come to the “eureka” moment.’

Model research – international team

© Thomas von ZglinickiCollaborating with an international team was also exciting. Six out of the eight researchers on this paper (published in the journal Nature Communications), are not originally from the UK.

‘International students and researchers have helped make the science in this country so great – it’s so important that they keep coming here,’ said Professor von Zglinicki.

Professor von Zglinicki himself came from Berlin, Germany, to the UK in 2000.

He was drawn to the UK’s facilities and academic environment – particularly in his area of expertise, anti-ageing.

‘Outside the UK, at that time, it was thought that getting old was just a fact of life,’ he said. ‘But now it’s a huge area of research and one reason is the way this centre in Newcastle really pioneered this research field.

‘Nowadays many other institutions and centres across the world are looking at ways of responding to the challenges posed by ageing populations, and many are directly modelled on our institute here.’

‘Windsurfing at 70’

In the long term, the scientists say, drugs could be developed to help build the right complex in mitochondria and potentially limit premature ageing.

And their findings about calorie intake could be used to improve anti-ageing advice right away, according to Professor von Zglinicki.

‘This has given us a fuller understanding of the reasons behind how fast we age, that could be potentially deterministic,’ he said.

‘At present we are changing the rate at which humans age all the time, with improvements in healthcare and food quality. Already we expect that every year, the average human life span will increase by about a quarter of a year.

‘The impact of this research on lifestyle and nutrition could be dramatic, and for people like myself who are in their 60s, to think in 10 years I could still go windsurfing is very exciting!’

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