BBC Radio 4, Tuesday 28 May 2013
Presented by Professor Jim Al-Khalili
Nothing is certain, the old saying goes, except death and taxes. Professor Dame Linda Partridge is working on the former. Through her research into the genetics of ageing, she hopes to uncover ways for people to stay healthy into old age.
Why the body should deteriorate and die fascinates many: from biologists to artists, politicians to the public. Ageing-associated diseases cost the UK at least £35 billion a year and it's only going to get worse.
As we heard in this edition of Radio 4's 'The Life Scientific', Professor Partridge's research looks at whether we can fend off what she calls the 'insults of daily living'. Early work by geneticist Thomas Johnson in the 80s and biologist Cynthia Kenyon in the 90s found that mutations in a single gene could double the lifespan of nematode worms. Professor Partridge later discovered that the same gene also extends the lives of fruit flies, a distant evolutionary relative.
Tweaking the very same gene in mice allows some rodents to experience fewer cataracts and less osteoporosis as well as maintain better immune systems, agility and skin condition. Could this point to a universal gene for ageing?
The gene in question, known as 'chico' (Spanish for 'small boy'), helps orchestrate cell growth. Professor Partridge says the current idea is that ageing is related to cells growing too much. Mutations in the chico gene limits growth and can increase the body's natural detoxification processes.
Growth and ageing are also tangled up with the intriguing notion of dietary restriction - the idea that eating fewer calories boosts longevity. This effect has been seen in worms, flies, mice, rats and rhesus macaques. However, the evidence that it works in humans is still a little shaky.
And humans are notoriously bad at willpower, so Professor Partridge believes that drugs might provide the best solution to our problems of ageing. Rapamycin is a drug produced by soil bacteria found on Easter Island that has been shown to extend the lifespan of mice. It works by suppressing the immune system and so is used to prevent rejection of transplants in humans. Unfortunately, rapamycin also comes with a long list of serious side effects, such as increased risk of diabetes and lymphoma.
Nevertheless, some form of pill-shaped fountain of youth may prove tempting for pharmaceutical companies. A drug that everyone takes from their fifties until the end of life would be quite the money-spinner. Healthier, longer lives may make it easier to lower the financial stresses of growing old by raising the age of retirement - something Professor Partridge is keen on, though she admits not everyone loves their jobs as much as she loves hers.
This is in little doubt. Professor Partridge is a wonderful example of the importance of learning by doing in science. Through setting up her own lab while attending a Catholic convent boarding school, Professor Partridge says that science allowed her a different way of thinking about the world.
In the 1970s, when Professor Partridge was starting out on her research career, it was a 'tremendous advantage to be female', she says, because universities wanted 'to appoint women to academic jobs'. She chose her career over having children and says she now advises women to have children earlier, rather than waiting until they're about to set up their own laboratories. It is not my place to comment on whether prejudices against scientists taking maternity leave do or do not still exist, but it's an important issue deserving openness and dialogue.
In sum, this episode was an engaging biography of a thoughtful and dedicated scientist.