Of worms and women: can the 'biological clock' be reset?

Date: November 19, 2010
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Bar Harbor, Maine -- Fertility in women steeply declines in the later years of their reproductive lives. This has long been attributed solely to the aging and depletion of the egg cells themselves. But what if other biological factors have major influences?

In this week's edition of the journal Nature, Drs. Kevin Flurkey and David Harrison of The Jackson Laboratory were invited to analyze research published by Princeton University scientists Shijing Luo, Colleen Murphy and colleagues. Working with the laboratory roundworm C. elegans, the Princeton researchers demonstrated that with age, hormone-like signals (some known and some as yet unidentified) reduce the quality of oocytes (egg cells) and increase chromosomal abnormalities. These signaling changes can be interrupted in C. elegans, resulting in a longer viable reproductive life.

Drs. Flurkey and Harrison, who study aging processes, note that similar signaling changes occur in mammals, raising the possibility of future interventions that could delay reproductive aging in women, once the mechanisms of reducing oocyte quality are fully defined.

Do these findings "have a take-home message for women concerned about getting pregnant later in life and giving birth to healthy babies?" they write. Not immediately. "However, this study offers specific hypotheses that can be tested in mammalian systems. It thus opens the door to the possibility of improving oocyte quality during the period of reproductive decline."

In 2009, Professor Harrison and collaborators, including Dr. Flurkey, demonstrated the first pharmacological intervention proven to lengthen mammalian lifespan. They showed that rapamycin, a drug used to prevent organ rejection in human transplant recipients, can significantly extend the lifespan of mice. This research was hailed by both Nature and Science as one of the top 10 scientific breakthroughs of the year.

The Jackson Laboratory is an independent, nonprofit biomedical research institution and National Cancer Institute-designated Cancer Center based in Bar Harbor, Maine, with a facility in Sacramento, Calif. Its mission is to discover the genetic basis for preventing, treating and curing human diseases, and to enable research and education for the biomedical community.

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Kevin Flurkey and David E. Harrison: Reproductive ageing: Of worms and women. Nature, doi:10.1038/468386a, Nov. 18, 2010.

Contact(s): Joyce Peterson, 207-288-6058

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