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Researchers narrow search for longevity gene

BOSTON, Massachusetts (CNN) -- In a development that holds the prospect of longer, healthier lives, researchers have identified a region of a chromosome that they believe contains the genes responsible for longevity, according to a study published in a scientific journal.

Researcher Dr. Thomas Perls, a geriatrician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, said he and his colleagues began looking for a genetic cause for longevity because they encountered so many healthy people who had lived beyond age 100.

Perls said there would only be a one in 20 chance that such exceptional longevity could happen randomly, without some genetic influence.

So far, researchers have pinpointed just the region of human chromosome 4, containing between 100 and 500 genes. The next step is to identify the exact gene or genes responsible for longevity. The researchers also hope to understand why those particular genes help people live a longer.

Meet Dr. Thomas Perls,  coauthor and lead researcher on the chromosome project.
Centenarians  credit genes, 'clean living'

"This insight could lead to the development of drugs that mimic what centenarians possess genetically to escape the adverse consequences of aging," the authors -- Perls and Louis Kunkel, chief of genetics at Children's Hospital Boston -- said in a press release.

Added Perls: "We're not trying to find the fountain of youth. If anything, we're trying to find the fountain of aging well."

Most researchers in the field believe that as many as 1,000 genes influence aging in humans. This study challenges that, saying only a few genes are involved.

The researchers conducted what is known as a sibling-pair linkage study using 137 sets of two or more exceptionally long-lived siblings. Researchers looked for regions of chromosomes that were identical among a large proportion of the sibling sets.

To qualify for the study, one sibling had to be 98 years or older and have at least one brother age 91 years or older or one sister age 95 years or older. The results pointed to a particular region along chromosome 4 as the section of the human genome likely to contain the genetic material that predisposes an unusually long life.

"The identification of (the) genes ... should serve as the basis for future research into the cellular pathways important to the aging process," according to the authors. Said Perls: "This is the first study to use humans to try to find genes that play a role in life span."

The researchers are from Children's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and Rutgers University. This research was funded by a number of organizations, including: the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Ellison Medical Foundation, the Alzheimer's Association, the American Federation for Aging Research, the Alliance for Aging Research, the Institute for the Study of Aging, the National Institute on Aging, and the Retirement Research Foundation.

The finding were published in this week's edition of in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

• The New England Centenarian Study
• Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center
• Children's Hospital Boston

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