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LE Magazine November 1999

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DNA CHIPS FOR AGING:
The Media Responds

image When the Prolla/Weindruch article appeared in Science magazine, The Life Extension Foundation made certain its significance would not be lost on the world media. Saul Kent and I had visited Richard Weindruch and Tomas Prolla fully 19 days before their story broke, and we knew full well that their accomplishment was no ordinary development. LEF therefore sent out a release to thousands of media outlets around the world on the date their paper was published, containing the following announcement:

"Today's #1 breaking story is the revolutionary aging research study conducted by Drs. Tomas Prolla and Richard Weindruch, just published in the journal Science. The first interview with Drs. Prolla and Weindruch can be found on the web site of the Life Extension Foundation (www.lef.org). This interview makes it clear why the Prolla-Weindruch breakthrough is the most important advance in the history of aging research. It explains how the astonishing power of their new scientific method will lead to a rapid explosion in our knowledge of the fundamental causes of aging, and how this knowledge will lead, almost certainly, to the development of therapies to control aging in humans in the 21st century."

We can never know how many of these outlets would have grasped the meaning of the Prolla/Weindruch report on their own, but we do know that America On Line quoted the LEF press release in its entirety and may have distributed it over the Internet to its 20 million subscribers. In any case, the story did get noticed. For example, appearing simultaneously with the publication of the paper in Science on August 27th, the following newspaper stories were printed.


Newspaper Accounts

A New York Times News Service article, "New Device Reveals a Genetic Pattern in Aging of Mice," said "biologists have gained a deep insight into the nature of aging by means of a new device known as a gene expression chip [that] should help to test whether present anti-aging remedies do any good and to screen for better drugs, including perhaps ones that might give the same effect as low-calorie diets." The report said the new findings give "comfort for those who argue that a manageably small number of genes are involved" because "most of the cell's genes continue as usual" but "the one percent of the genes involved in generating energy . . . become much less active and the one percent involved in responding to stress and to nerve damage become much more active." Richard Weindruch was quoted as saying "It's our goal to test a patient's biological age from a drop of blood."

A front-page story in the LA Times included comments from Huber Warner, an official at the National Institute on Aging, who cautioned that "the technique is so new that other researchers will not be confident of the results until further tests are done" but said he "knew of three other research teams taking a similar approach, auguring a new era of research." The absence of most aging changes in calorie restricted mice was attributed to a "metabolic reprogramming" effect by the Wisconsin team.

A short article in USA Today said "a set of master-control genes for aging has been discovered that cold provide a simple way to monitor how fast a person ages and lead to drugs that keep people young," but incorrectly reported that "the master-control genes become damaged and less functional over time in mice on ordinary diets, but are kept purring like a new engine in those with the low-calorie diet." The story also said the so-called master control genes "regulate fundamental cellular tasks of stress responses, protein repair, and energy production."

The Wall Street Journal noted: "If the findings can be replicated in experiments to be carried out soon with DNA from primates and humans, the Wisconsin researchers will have uncovered tools drug makers can use to identify medicines that may be able to prevent genetic changes underlying such problems as heart disease, cancer, arthritis, memory loss and a host of other ills that typically arise as people get older." The article also noted (incorrectly at the time) that "the University of Wisconsin has filed patents to the discoveries and has licensed them to Mitos, Inc., a start-up company in Carlsbad, California, that plans to finance future work . . . . Kameron Maxwell, president of Mitos, said the company hopes to begin using the gene discoveries to search for drugs 'to slow down the aging process' and diagnostic tests."

The Associated Press incorrectly referred to "genes that normally deteriorate with age," but said "about 84 percent of the genetic alterations associated with aging were completely or partially suppressed" by calorie restriction. Prolla was quoted as saying, "This study has analyzed more genes with regard to aging than all previous studies combined," and gerontologist Raj Sohal was quoted as saying, "This study is quite important because it breaks new ground in giving us an understanding of what happens to gene expression with age." Prolla said, "At the molecular level, normal aging looks like a state of chronic injury in muscle," but that "calorie-restricted mice appear to be biologically younger than animals receiving the control diet," and that the genetic changes induced by calorie restriction "clearly play a role in extending life in those animals." Nevertheless, Weindruch was said to have cautioned that "it is not scientifically appropriate yet to recommend that people of normal weight go on calorie-restricted diets in order to prolong life," but that "this line of research bears watching."

We understand that the foreign media have been even more effusive about the study, writing longer, more in-depth articles about it than have appeared in papers throughout the U.S. Tomas Prolla, we are told, has become something of a hero in his native Columbia, as the immigrant to the United States who, in a short time, changed the field of aging research.

In addition to the print media, Weindruch and Prolla have told us about their appearances on numerous television programs (MSNBC viewers seemed particularly fascinated by their findings) and numerous interviews by radio stations. Fortunately for everyone, the world has paid attention to this turning point in history.


LEF Ahead of the Pack

As always, LEF was way out front on this story. We published an article on genomics (the use of DNA chips to study the diseases of aging) back in the January 1999 issue of Life Extension magazine(pages 48-52). For the Prolla/Weindruch study, though the Foundation was not privy to the previews released by Science to the official, major news organs prior to the publication date of the aging report, we already knew more about the findings than Science told these major outlets, having been in the Weindruch lab and having seen the DNA reader itself more than a week before the rest of the media found out about the article in Science. The day most newspapers were writing relatively garbled versions of the story, the LEF released a major in-depth interview with Prolla and Weindruch that explained the entire picture in the scientists' own words.


Future News

We will continue to keep you abreast of the use of the DNA microarray technology to study aging. Already, Weindruch and Prolla have submitted a second paper for publication, this one on the part of the brain where a lot of higher functions take place (the cerebral cortex), and this is just the beginning of their work on the genomics of aging. Whatever else may emerge from what we hope will be an accelerating trend, you'll find out about it here.

-Gregory Fahy