He's an Old Mouse, But Spry. Are We Next?

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Remember "Cocoon," the movie where a group of intergalactic Ponce de Leons swoop down and woo old people into their spaceship with promises of eternal youth? Well, research released Thursday by a group of Italian geneticists could convince future generations of geriatrics to stay earthbound in the face of such offers. The researchers say they have isolated a gene in mice linked to many of the ill effects of aging, offering the most concrete proof to date that mammals have a biological clock, determining how long we live. "This research addresses the question of whether there's a genetic clock that says how long we live or if aging is simply caused by our bodies' giving way to the elements," says TIME health writer Christine Gorman. "It's proof that there are parts of the aging process that are under genetic control."

The isolated gene releases a protein that destroys cells damaged by the flow of oxygen, a process believed to prevent cancerous cells from forming. Cumulative cell death leads to a general breakdown of the body and such symptoms of aging as wrinkles. Lab mice genetically engineered not to produce the protein lived 30 percent longer than non-engineered mice, with no noticeable side effects. Researchers associated with the project said it would be comparitively simple to block the protein's production in people as well.