Researchers have zeroed in on an enzyme — found in natural foods like broccoli and cucumbers — that can slow some of the chronic conditions that come with age. So far the findings are limited to mice, but they’re encouraged enough to start testing it in people
The quest for the Fountain of Youth is getting a boost from an international team of researchers who may have stumbled upon a compound that appears to make cells act younger than they are—at least in mice.
In a paper published in Cell Metabolism, researchers led by the Washington University School of Medicine reported that they found an agent that can balance out what happens in aging cells to essentially make them behave as they would in a younger mouse. That substance, as it turns out, is also found in a number of natural foods, including broccoli, cucumbers, cabbage and edamame.
The compound, called nicotinamide mononucleotide (NMN), is involved in producing another compound that is critical for energy metabolism. When they gave normal aging mice infusions of NMN, they made more of that energy-fueling compound and some of the biological problems associated with aging went away. The NMN-treated animals did not gain as much weight, they were able to convert food into energy more efficiently, their blood sugar was better—even their eyesight improved. The mice receiving NMN were also able to prevent some of the genetic changes associated with aging.
Most lab mice live just several years, so the researchers started the NMN treatments at five months, and continued them for a year. The study did not track whether the mice actually live longer, but with lower rates of age-related disease, that’s the assumption.
So can you load up on broccoli or cabbage and extend your life? “If you do the math, I wouldn’t say it’s impossible entirely but probably very difficult to get the whole amount [you need] simply from natural foods,” says Dr. Shin-Ichiro Imai, professor of developmental biology and medicine at Washington University and senior author of the paper.
The results are encouraging enough that part of the team, based at Keio University in Tokyo, is launching an early study on people — using supplements of NMN in pill form. “It’s clear that in humans and in rodents, we lose energy with age,” says Imai. “We are losing the enzyme NMN. But if we can bypass that process by adding NMN, we can make energy again. These results provide a very important foundation for the human studies.”
The findings are also in line with other anti-aging compounds that have shown promise in animal studies, including things like the diabetes drug metformin, rapamycin and sirtuins, all of which are also involved in energy-making process. “All of these pathways cross-talk with each other,” says Imai. “We don’t know the precise details of how, but they are communicating with each other.”
The hope is that the human studies will add provide even more information about how to keep cells young — and maybe halt, or at least hold off, the diseases that typically creep in as cells get older and lose their function.