An anti-ageing pill that boosts the immune system and staves off a host of killer diseases could be on the horizon.
Scientists found mice genetically engineered to produce more of a liver hormone called FGF21 increased their number of infection fighting T-cells.
The breakthrough could lead to improving the body’s defensive system in the elderly and prevent obesity, cancer, type-2 diabetes and other diseases.
Three years ago researchers found mice programmed to make more FGF21 (fibroblast growth factor 21) lived up to 40 percent longer than normal.
The new study shows the chemical is also found in high numbers in the thymus gland where it is produced by specialised cells.
Experiments on the lab rodents showed increasing levels protected against the loss of age-related immune function.
The thymus gland is located in front of the heart and creates the immune system’s T-cells.
Quite large in children it shrinks and becomes fatty as we get older putting older people more at risk of ill health and certain cancers.
When the researchers knocked out the the FGF21 gene the thymus degenerated quicker in older mice – while increasing levels of the hormone protecting them against the age-related decay and improved the ability of the gland to produce new T-cells.
Professor Vishwa Dixit, of Yale University in Connecticut, said: “We found FGF21 levels in thymic epithelial cells is several fold higher than in the liver — therefore FGF21 acts within the thymus to promote T-cell production.
“Elevating the levels of FGF21 in the elderly or in cancer patients who undergo bone marrow transplantation may be an additional strategy to increase T-cell production – and thus bolster immune function.”
He said FGF21 is produced in the liver with levels increasing when calories are restricted to allow fats to be burned when sugar levels are low.
It’s a metabolic hormone that improves insulin sensitivity and also triggers weight loss – so it’s already being studied for its therapeutic effects in type-2 diabetes and obesity.
Further studies will focus on understanding how FGF21 protects the thymus from ageing – and whether elevating FGF21 with drugs can help humans live longer and healthier lives by lowering the incidence of disease caused by age-related loss of immune function.
Professor Dixit said: “We will also look to developing a way to mimic calorie restriction to enhance immune function without actually reducing caloric intake.”
The paper was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
by Mark Waghorn