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Worms hold clue to link between cancer and ageing in humans

A type of protein linked to cancer prevention in humans may also play a role in ageing, according to findings published in the journal Science today (2 June). The internationally funded research, carried out at the Buck Institute in the USA and the University of Manchester in the UK, found that proteins which prevent cancer in humans by stopping damaged cells from dividing, also determine lifespan in microscopic worms.

The findings raise the question of whether genetic variations in specific proteins in humans may protect some people from age associated diseases, while placing others at heightened risk of cancer.

In the study, which received funding from the UK’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), researchers genetically removed checkpoint proteins in the nematode worm, C.elegans, which resulted in a 15 to 30 per cent increase in the lifespan of the worms.

Previously it was thought that checkpoint proteins were only functional in dividing cells, but this new research suggests they have a dual function, also being active in cells that no longer divide.

Gordon Lithgow, Associate Professor at the Buck Institute, explained: “We know that ageing is a huge risk factor in cancer, and although we know the role these proteins plays in preventing cancer – or encouraging it if the proteins are not working properly - we did not imagine that this checkpoint protein would be involved in determining lifespan.”

The team of international researchers, including scientists from Denmark and India, discovered the dual role of the checkpoint proteins while screening the worms for genes that determine stress resistance and longevity in cells.

Professor Lithgow said: “We have known for a long time that checkpoint proteins can influence the development of cancer, now we know they can influence longevity too. This discovery has exciting potential as an area of inquiry into a possible cellular link between ageing and cancer. We are now concentrating on trying to identify additional tumour suppressor genes that impact on ageing in worms and human cells. We think there are many more checkpoint proteins some of which may help to develop therapies for cancer and age associated diseases.”

Professor Julia Goodfellow, Chief Executive of BBSRC, which funded the initial stages of the research, said: “Ageing and cancer are global concerns and it is exciting to see the success of international collaborations such as this. It is only by understanding fundamental bioscience like this that we can develop and deliver health benefits to the public in the future.”

Matt Goode | alfa
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