“This was certainly an unexpected finding,” said principal investigator Robert J. Schneider, PhD, the Albert Sabin Professor of Molecular Pathogenesis, associate director for translational research and co-director of the Breast Cancer Program at NYU Langone Medical Center. “It is rather uncommon for one gene to have two very different and very significant functions that tie together control of aging and inflammation. The two, if not regulated properly, can eventually lead to cancer development. It’s an exciting scientific find.”
For decades, the scientific community has known that inflammation, accelerated aging and cancer are somehow intertwined, but the connection between them has remained largely a mystery, Dr. Schneider said. What was known, due in part to past studies by Schneider and his team, was that a gene called AUF1 controls inflammation by turning off the inflammatory response to stop the onset of septic shock. But this finding, while significant, did not explain a connection to accelerated aging and cancer.
When the researchers deleted the AUF1 gene, accelerated aging occurred, so they continued to focus their research efforts on the gene. Now, more than a decade in the making, the mystery surrounding the connection between inflammation, advanced aging and cancer is finally being unraveled.
The study also suggests these epigenetic processes — that can be caused by external factors such as diet, lifestyle and environment — are likely to be initiated from an early age and continue through a person’s life. The researchers say that the epigenetic changes they have identified could be used as potential ‘markers’ of biological aging and in the future could be possible targets for anti-aging therapies.
Published April 20 in PLoS Genetics, the study looked at 172 twins aged 32 to 80 from the TwinsUK cohort based at King’s College London and St Thomas’ Hospital, as part of King’s Health Partners Academic Health Sciences Centre.
The researchers looked for epigenetic changes in the twins’ DNA, and performed epigenome-wide association scans to analyze these changes in relation to chronological age. They identified 490 age related epigenetic changes. They also analysed DNA modifications in age related traits and found that epigenetic changes in four genes relate to cholesterol, lung function and maternal longevity.
To try to identify when these epigenetic changes may be triggered, the researchers replicated the study in 44 younger twins, aged 22 to 61, and found that many of the 490 age related epigenetic changes were also present in this younger group. The researchers say these results suggest that while many age related epigenetic changes happen naturally with age throughout a person’s life, a proportion of these changes may be initiated early in life.