Scientists unlock the key to mortality

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A gene that controls ageing has been found by US researchers, raising the possibility that gene therapy or drugs might prolong active human life to 150 years.

By isolating and identifying the gene, researchers hope they may be able to devise treatments that could slow the process of ageing. A team led by Dr Gerard Schellenberg at the Veterans Health Care System, in Seattle, report the gene's discovery in today's issue of the US journal, Science.

They discovered the gene by looking at people with Werner's syndrome - a form of premature ageing - which results from inheriting an abnormal variant of the gene. There are estimated to be up to 1,000 people with Werner's syndrome in Britain, according to Professor Sydney Shall, an expert on the disease at Sussex University. The average age of death is 45, but some last until their 50s, he said.

Professor Shall speculated that Werner's syndrome might actually have been the primordial human standard and that "normal" people evolved the extra gene to acquire our present longevity.

The gene appears to slow ageing. "What if we put in another one?", he asked. "One hundred and fifty years is not an unreasonable human lifespan and we are talking about healthy, vigorous life."

People with Werner's develop normally until about the age of 10, when they stop growing, and adults seldom exceed 5ft. By their 30s they have severe atherosclerosis - narrowing of the arteries associated with old age. They can develop diabetes in their 30s, cancer, osteoporosis and rheumatoid arthritis. "They look twice as old as they really are," Professor Shall said.

Body cells taken from patients with Werner's syndrome have "dramatic and odd" limitations when cultured in the laboratory. They stop growing some five or six times faster than normal cells. "The positive function of the gene is to keep cells growing for a much longer time," professor Shall said.

It appears that the protein produced by the gene has a role in unzipping the double helix of DNA. The identification of the gene will allow parents to have a prenatal diagnosis where there is a risk to a foetus.