In the new anti-aging study, researchers looked into the effects of changing insulin levels in a species of tiny worm known as Caenorhabditis elegans. The worm has long been used in cutting-edge genetics research. The researchers found that more insulin results in less activity by a gene-regulating protein called SKN-1. So, by lowering insulin levels, the study authors were able to boost levels of the protein and make the worms live a week longer than their typical two-week lifespan. This increased their lifespan by 50%.
Although it's too early to know if this will translate to humans the study does give researchers insight about how insulin and lifespan might be related.
Insulin is best known as the hormone that allows healthy people to regulate blood sugar and is linked to a variety of problems in diabetics. Insulin has other jobs, such as helping to regulate the burning of fuel by cells to provide energy, noted Blackwell, an associate professor of pathology at Harvard Medical School and faculty member at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. Insulin also serves as a taskmaster, telling cells to process glucose, suppress tumors and respond to the daily challenges that our bodies face.
The potential impact on people with diabetes is unclear. Diabetics are unable to produce enough insulin: people with the rarer type 1 diabetes produce no insulin, while those with type 2 diabetes don't produce enough. Blackwell believes that the research does hold hope for people with a variety of diseases. "We're understanding more about mechanisms that can be harnessed in a way that pushes back this tide of cellular damage," he said. "There's a lot of therapeutic potential to defend against chronic diseases and potentially expand lifespans."
The new findings were published in the March 21 issue of the journal Cell.