According to Spanish biologists, a gene that protects against cancer may also serve as an elixir of youth.
Researchers at the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre in Madrid say that mice with an extra copy of the p53 gene live longer than those with just one copy, and are better at combating the cell damage that causes ageing.
The conclusion that the p53 gene may offer an anti-ageing treatment for people stands in direct contradiction to a previous study's findings according to which a boost in the tumour suppressor though kept mice cancer free, it caused them to age more quickly.
However, the researchers insist that there is a key difference between these studies. Since the normal regulatory mechanisms remain in place in the new study, the gene is churned out only when it is needed. This seems to turn an ageing protein into a youth-preserving one.
"It's a very impressive effect. It's very hopeful because it says under some circumstances you can get the best of both worlds," Nature magazine quoted Larry Donehower of Baylor University in Houston, who led the older work, as saying.
The researchers have also discovered that the protein uses a gentler strategy to keep people healthy. It turns on cellular production of antioxidants, which mop up damaging molecules, they say.
In the course of study, the experimental mice were bred with an extra copy of p53, along with the usual gene that regulates how much protein it produces. These mice had fewer tumours than regular ones, and they lived 16 per cent longer than their normal counterparts.
The researchers insist that the boost in life expectancy was not a result of fewer mice dying of cancer. They claim that a look at cancer-free mice showed them that transgenic mice lived 25 per cent longer, on average, than normal ones.
Although the oldest mice in both groups died at about the same age, more of the transgenic mice lived into their golden years than their normal counterparts.
Upon closely observing the youthful mice, the researchers found higher levels of genes that combat oxidative damage than in regular rodents. The mice with extra p53 also held up better against a lethal dose of paraquat, a drug that causes oxidative damage.