Celebrating Cynthia Kenyon – authority on genetics of ageing and life extension.

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Ever wanted to live forever? Molecular biologist Cynthia Kenyon may have the answer.

Cynthia Kenyon is one of the world’s foremost authorities on the molecular biology and genetics of aging and life extension. She is Calico’s vice president of aging research.

In 1993, Kenyon’s pioneering discovery that a single-gene mutation could double the lifespan of healthy, fertile C. elegans roundworms sparked an intensive study of the molecular biology of aging. Her findings showed that, contrary to popular belief, aging does not “just happen” in a completely haphazard way. Instead, the rate of aging is subject to genetic control: Animals (and likely people) contain regulatory proteins that affect aging by coordinating diverse collections of downstream genes that together protect and repair the cells and tissues. Kenyon’s findings have led to the realization that a universal hormone-signaling pathway influences the rate of aging in many species, including humans. She has identified many longevity genes and pathways, and her lab was the first to discover that neurons, and also the germ cells, can control the lifespan of the whole animal.

Kenyon graduated valedictorian in chemistry from the University of Georgia in 1976. She received her Ph.D. from MIT in 1981 and was a postdoctoral fellow with Nobel laureate Sydney Brenner in Cambridge, England. In 1986 she joined the faculty of the University of California, San Francisco, where she became the Herb Boyer Distinguished Professor and an American Cancer Society Professor, before joining Calico in 2014. Kenyon is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Medicine and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and she is a former president of the Genetics Society of America. She has received many scientific honors and awards.

 

It’s not quite so straightforward but her genetic studies regarding ageing in C. elegans worms show us that it may be possible to make life longer. She found that a daf2 hormone receptor mutation doubled the lifespan of a simple worm without impacting on the quality of the worm’s   life. In human terms, a mutant worm would look like a teenager in middle age.

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The most impressive part of Cynthia Kenyon’s studies is that when repeated on mice, the same effect took hold. As mice are mammals, it is possible that the same effect could be achieved in humans. Another finding was that living things with mutated daf2 hormone receptors are less likely to get ageing diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, cancer or heart disease. Imagine if we could take a pill to introduce mutated daf2 hormone receptors into our bodies.

Kenyon’s research prompted her to make personal dietary changes.

In 2000, when she discovered that putting sugar on the worms’ food shortened their lifespans, she stopped eating high glycemic index carbohydrates and started eating a low-carbohydrate diet.

She briefly experimented with a calorie restriction diet for two days, but couldn’t stand the constant hunger.

 

Cynthia Kenyon graduated valedictorian in chemistry and biochemistry from the University of Georgia in 1976. She received her PhD in 1981 from MIT where, in Graham Walker’s laboratory, she looked for genes on the basis of their activity profiles, discovering that DNA-damaging agents activate a battery of DNA repair genes in E. coli. She then did postdoctoral studies with Nobel laureate Sydney Brenner at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, studying the development of C. elegans.

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Since 1986 she has been at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), where she was the Herbert Boyer Distinguished Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics and is now an American Cancer Society Professor. In 1999 she co-founded Elixir Pharmaceuticals with Leonard Guarente to try to discover and develop drugs that would slow down the process that makes people age.

In April 2014, Kenyon was named Vice President of Aging Research at Calico, a new company focused on health, well-being, and longevity. Prior to that, she served as a part-time advisor beginning in November 2013. Kenyon will remain affiliated with UCSF as an emeritus professor.

Her early work led to the discovery that Hox genes, which were known to pattern the body segments of the fruit fly (Drosophila) also pattern the body of C. elegans. These findings demonstrated that Hox genes were not simply involved in segmentation, as thought, but instead were part of a much more ancient and fundamental metazoan patterning system.

Kenyon has received many honors, including the King Faisal Prize for Medicine, the American Association of Medical Colleges Award for Distinguished Research, the Ilse & Helmut Wachter Award for Exceptional Scientific Achievement, and La Fondation IPSEN Prize, for her findings. She is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She is also one of featured biologists in the 1995 science documentary Death by Design / The Life and Times of Life and Times.

 

These discoveries came over 2 and a half decades ago. Now she works with Google’s Calico, and the aim is to potentially lengthen the lives of humans by 100 years. A pioneer in ageing research, if there is one scientist who is likely to make us all live healthier longer lives — it’s Cynthia Kenyon. She is truly one of the most inspirational women in science today.

  • Extract from Calicolabs.com and Wikipedia.
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