A gene that cleans up the old material in cells can hold key to slow down human aging after researchers found that it boosted the life spans of fruit flies.
When researchers manipulated the neurons of fruit flies to contain higher levels of the gene, known as parkin, they lived 28 percent longer and remained healthy, said the study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"Just by increasing the levels of parkin, they live substantially longer while remaining healthy, active and fertile," said lead author Anil Rana, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles.
"That is what we want to achieve in aging research -- not only to increase their life span but to increase their health span as well."
Parkin has been previously implicated in the development of Parkinson's disease.
People born with a mutation in the parkin gene are at higher risk for developing early onset symptoms of Parkinson's, which typically develops in older adults.
Further study may reveal whether humans could experience a similar longevity boost from higher levels of parkin, which marks damaged proteins so that cells can discard them before they become toxic.
Parkin is also thought to be instrumental in removing damaged mitochondria from the cells.
"Our research may be telling us that parkin could be an important therapeutic target for neurodegenerative diseases and perhaps other diseases of aging," said senior author David Walker, an associate professor of integrative biology and physiology at UCLA.
"Instead of studying the diseases of aging one by one -- Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, cancer, stroke, cardiovascular disease, diabetes -- we believe it may be possible to intervene in the aging process and delay the onset of many of these diseases," he added.
"We are not there yet, and it can, of course, take many years, but that is our goal."