The secret of healthy life for humans found in a worm
Professor Richard Faragher has been given an award for his research into ageing
Wriggling under the microscope it looks fairly innocuous. But a tiny worm about the size of a comma may hold the key to a healthier and happier life.
About 20 years ago scientists found a genetic mutation in the worm which meant they could make it live longer.
Now they have turned their attention to humans, who share the same gene.
Professor Richard Faragher, from the University of Brighton, is researching how that gene slows down the ageing process and the social implications.
His work won't suddenly mean eternal life for those who wish it - but what it could mean is an old age without illness or disease.
"What we do know when we look at simple animals which carries these mutations and live a long time, is that when they do die it's very difficult to find a cause of death," he says.
"It's as though, to take it in human terms, you knocked off work on Friday, you were dead on Saturday morning and we had a lot of difficulty working out what killed you."
For the last 15 years the scientific community interested in ageing has been trying to work out how the mutant gene in the worm - called Caenorhabditis elegans - actually works.
It has been "akin to finding a piece of technology from an alien spaceship," says Richard. "You know what it does but you don't know how it works."
Through research with people who suffer from premature ageing diseases, Richard and his colleagues believe they now understand what is going on.
"The simplest way of looking at it, is we think that how long an organism lives is set by how efficiently it recycles damaged components.
"Under normal circumstances in my cells and your cells, recycling is very energetically expensive compared to making new stuff.
"So what happens is our cells fill up with junk which cannot be thrown away or broken down. The mutations appear to work by requiring the organisms to use these recycling pathways."
He says the new knowledge being generated from studying the worms "is starting to make us question what we thought we knew about the causes of ill health in later life" and suggests that there are "a few driving mechanisms controlling lifespan".
The worm scientists have been studying is called C. elegans
"If we focus on those key processes we can prevent a whole raft of later life conditions and we can get healthier, happier older people."
And there has never been a more pressing need for that to happen.
Although people's maximum lifespan hasn't changed as far back as scientists can tell, what has changed is the rate of early childhood mortality.
"In the 16th Century one baby in four would die in the first four years of life...today it's less than one baby in a hundred. Every old person alive today is a baby who didn't die and that's a good thing," says Richard.
The effects are being felt across the board, socially, politically and financially.
"It has been estimated that the cost of ageing badly on the NHS budget is roughly equivalent to the entire cost of the MOD," Richard adds.
"This gives you a flavour of how big a problem ageing badly is and also a sense of what we could achieve in terms of making ordinary people's lives better, and saving money if we can really get to grips with the fundamental biology of the ageing process.
"If we fail to do this, we will spend more money than we have ever done before, to keep more people more miserable that we have ever done before and I don't see that as right."
Professor Richard Faragher will be talking about his research at the University of Brighton on November 19th. Find out more
This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.