|By Avigayil Kadesh
The mice in Prof. Esther Priel’s Ben-Gurion University lab in southern Israel live only four months. That’s because they are genetically engineered to develop the deadly symptoms of the human disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease), a progressive deterioration of the nerve cells responsible for muscle activity.
But it was these very mice -- many batches of them over five years of research -- that yielded groundbreaking results in the hunt for the secret to lengthening the life of individuals with ALS or any neurodegenerative disease.
As Priel and her colleagues explained in an article in the February EMBO Molecular Medicine Journal, they synthesized a compound that boosts the body’s production of an enzyme called telomerase.
“Telomerase is a fascinating enzyme, important in prolonging the life of cells and tissues,” she says. “We were lucky to find this compound.”
Actually, it was one of several compounds that Priel, a microbiology and immunology researcher, has cooked up with organic chemist Aviv Gazit, a retired Hebrew University professor; and Dr. Shimon Slavin, a transplantation specialist and director of the International Center for Cell Therapy & Cancer Immunotherapy in Tel Aviv.
“The three of us have collaborated for many years,” says Priel. In her lab in Beersheva, a team of student researchers discovered how one of the trio’s synthesized compounds is able to cross the blood-brain barrier in order to affect the mice’s production of telomerase.
A decade of research ahead
At the beginning of 2012, Priel and her team got a $1 million two-year grant from a private US investment fund for further studies through the university’s tech transfer company, BGN Technologies.
Priel stresses that none of the researchers’ compounds address the root cause of disease but simply give nerve cells stronger tools to protect themselves from damage caused by oxidation. So it’s possible that products made from the compounds could also put the brakes on diseases associated with the natural aging process, which is in part a result of oxidation.
This is the second piece of news out of Israel in 2012 involving the search for longer life.
Earlier in February, Nature published the results of a major study out of Israel’s Bar-Ilan University showing how a gene called SIRT6 increased the life expectancy of male mice 15 percent above normal.
“Telomerase is not the same as SIRT, but there is a scientific connection between the two enzymes,” says Priel. “They may be regulated one by the other. We have some experiments on this.”
Exciting as the discovery is, Priel cautions that at least a decade of research and clinical trials is ahead before we might see a pharmaceutical product based on her team’s compounds.