The research, published by the journal Molecular Systems Biology
, shows that when an ageing cell detects serious damage to its DNA – caused by the wear and tear of life – it sends out specific internal signals.
These distress signals trigger the cell’s mitochondria
, its tiny energy-producing power packs, to make oxidising “free radical” molecules, which in turn tell the cell either to destroy itself or to stop dividing. The aim is to avoid the damaged DNA that causes cancer.
The Newcastle discovery plays down the role of telomeres
, the protective tips on the ends of human chromosomes, which gradually become shorter as we grow older.
“There has been a huge amount of speculation about how blocking telomere erosion might cure ageing and age-related diseases,” said Tom Kirkwood, director of Newcastle’s Institute of Ageing and Health
. “The telomere story has over-promised and the biology is more complicated.”
He added: “Our breakthrough means that we stand a very much better chance of making a successful attack on age-related diseases while at the same time avoiding the risk of unwanted side-effects like cancer.”