Scientists studying mitochondria, “power plants” of human cells, say their findings pave the way for a drug to combat the natural ageing process. Lead researcher Alex Seabright, from the University of Birmingham, said: “We know that exercise and diet regimes can be used to help people maintain their muscle mass and physical capabilities in later life.
“Improving our understanding as to why muscle loss occurs with ageing will aid the development of targeted pharmacological interventions to help people to stay physically capable for longer.”
The team wanted to find out what factors control how mitochondria are broken down in muscle cells.
Because mitochondria are so important to energy supply, they are constantly being made, broken down and re-made to match the energy demands of the cell.
But in older people, the process starts to change, leading to a build-up of damaged or old mitochondria that are not working as efficiently.
Scientists believe this might contribute to a loss of strength and mass in the muscles of older people, which in turn leads to a reduction in their physical capabilities.
PHD researcher Mr Seabright developed a tool that uses fluorescent tags to study mitochondria.
In healthy cells, networks of mitochondria look gold but turn red when they are being broken down.
Activating a master energy sensor molecule called AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK) led to more mitochondria being broken down.
Exercise is also known to boost AMPK.
The findings suggest that medications to activate AMPK could also help the body break down damaged mitochondria – keeping muscle cells healthy and keeping older people moving better for longer.
Project leader Dr Yu-Chiang Lai said: “The idea of targeting AMPK with drugs is not new.
“Many studies, including some of our previous work, demonstrate that AMPK activation in muscle elicits many beneficial effects for treating type 2 diabetes.
“As a consequence, many pharmaceutical companies are currently working to develop pre-clinical compounds that activate AMPK.
“We hope that our new discovery will accelerate targeted drug development to help identify new and safe compounds to activate this key molecule in muscle.”
The findings are published in The FASEB Journal.
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