In Brief

November / December 2017   Comments

Accelerating drug development with yeast

Despite modern technology, drug discovery still largely rests on guesswork. To find a new medication, scientists sift through libraries containing thousands of chemical compounds, most of which will have no effect on the diseases they are studying. A new method developed by University of Toronto researchers and international collaborators has the potential to accelerate the process of figuring out which compounds will produce the desired result in the body.

In a study published in Nature Chemical Biology, the research team tested how nearly 14,000 compounds affect basic cellular processes, to point drug makers toward chemicals that are most likely to be useful in treating particular diseases. They chose to conduct their study in yeast cells because yeasts are the only living organisms for which scientists have a good handle on basic cellular processes, such as energy production and DNA replication and repair. The team identified roughly 1,000 chemicals, many of which are natural products derived from soil microbes, as potential medicines against a range of conditions, including infections, Alzheimer’s disease and cancer. Because natural compounds have been shaped to act on living organisms, they are better candidates for future medicines than synthetic compounds, which often do not even get into the cells.

How long can humans live?

Emma Morano died last April. Before her death, the 117-year-old Italian woman was believed to be the world’s oldest living person. Supercentenarians such as Morano and Jeanne Calment of France, who lived to be 122, fascinate scientists and have led them to wonder just how long humans can live.

A 2016 study concluded that there is a biological limit to the human lifespan, at around 115 years, but two McGill University biologists have come to a starkly different conclusion. In a study published in Nature, they analyzed the lifespans of the longest living individuals from the U.S., the U.K., France and Japan for each year since 1968. They found no evidence of an age limit. By extending trend lines, they said they could show that maximum and average lifespans could continue to increase far into the foreseeable future.

It is well known that average lifespans have increased in recent decades. In 1920, for example, the average newborn Canadian could expect to live 60 years; a Canadian born in 1980 could expect to live 76 years; today, life expectancy has jumped to 82 years. Maximum lifespan seems to be following the same trend.

Pumping up seniors’ strength and muscle mass

Whey protein supplements aren’t just for gym buffs, according to new research published in PLOS ONE. When taken on a regular basis, a drink containing whey protein, creatine, vitamin D, calcium, fish oil and other ingredients has been shown to improve the physical strength of senior citizens.

A team led by researchers from McMaster University recruited two groups of men age 70 and older for the study. One group took a multi-ingredient nutritional supplement for six weeks, while the other group took a placebo. After that, participants continued to take the supplement (or placebo) while also following a 12-week progressive exercise program. The objective was to evaluate whether daily consumption of the supplement would improve strength and lean body mass. In the first six weeks, only those who took the supplement gained strength and lean mass. Both groups experienced benefits from exercise training, but the improvements in strength were greater in the supplement-taking participants. The researchers plan to continue their work with older women and different populations who may also be able to benefit from taking such a supplement.

Your social class is written all over your face

In a new twist on first impressions, University of Toronto researchers have found that people can reliably tell if individuals are rich or poor just by looking at their face. People then use those impressions in biased ways, judging those with “rich” faces as ones to hire for jobs rather than those with “poor” ones.

The researchers grouped student volunteers into those with total family incomes under $60,000 or above $100,000 and had them pose for photos. They then asked a separate group of participants to look at the photos and, using nothing but their gut instinct, decide whether the people in the photos were rich or poor. These participants made the correct choice at a level that exceeded random chance. As reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the researchers found that the ability to read a person’s social class applied only when the face was neutral and expressionless. They concluded that emotions mask lifelong habits of expression that become etched on our faces by late teens or early adulthood, such as frequent happiness, which is stereotypically associated with being wealthy and satisfied.

Protein shows promise in treating heart failure

Researchers in Ottawa have discovered that a protein called cardiotrophin 1 (CT1) can trick the heart into growing in a healthy way and pumping more blood, just as it does in response to exercise and pregnancy. This kind of heart growth is very different from the harmful enlargement of the heart that occurs during heart failure. CT1 can also repair heart damage in animal models of heart failure.

The research team conducted a variety of studies in mice, rats and cells growing in the lab and published their results in Cell Research. They are particularly excited about CT1 because it shows promise in treating both left and right heart failure. The only treatment currently available for right heart failure is a transplant. Although there are drugs that can reduce the symptoms of left heart failure, they cannot fix the problem; over time, left heart failure often leads to right heart failure. The researchers also note that while exercise could theoretically have the same benefits as CT1, people with heart failure are usually limited in their ability to exercise. The researchers hope to develop partnerships to test their experimental therapy in humans.

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