Gordon Lithgow, Ph.D., and Katie Dumas, Ph.D., are researchers at the Buck Institute in Novato. They were using the worms to study proteins that degrade with aging and are associated with age-related diseases like Alzheimer’s.
“So in Alzheimer’s disease, there’s a protein called Beta Amyloid that gets sticky and starts to become toxic. And so if you have that protein in the worm, the same thing happens and the worm gets sick,” says Lithgow.
The damaged proteins clump together and appear as florescent blobs in the worms, which were genetically engineered to mimic human diseases. And since researchers could track that process, they decided to perform a high-speed screening for drugs that might slow or even reverse it.
“And then we looked at what those drugs actually were, and found that one was Vitamin D, and that’s when we got really excited,” says Dumas.
They say, the Vitamin D not only slowed the deterioration, it also extended median lifespan in the worms. They believe it works by affecting genes that impact both longevity and age-related diseases.
Still, worms are very far from humans. But the results are intriguing enough that the buck team now wants to study the vitamin d effect in small animals and ultimately learn more about how it might work in people.
“The big hope in this research is we’ll find new ways to treat age-related diseases. So what we’re really trying to do is extend health space, it may be that lifespan comes along with, but the goal is to make us healthier longer,” explains Lithgow.
And if they’re ultimately successful, at least some credit will go to some very colorful, and very useful worms.
Vitamin D supplements are already prescribed routinely to many elderly patients. Researchers say one reason is that as we age, our skin loses some of its ability to produce Vitamin D from sunlight.