German researchers at the Christian Albrechts University in Kiel recently confirmed that variants of the FOXO3A gene are a common characteristic for many people who live past 100. The CAU team studied 380+ centenarians, more than 600 people in their 90s, and more than 700 60-75 year olds to determine how prevalent these gene variations were. They found that not only were certain FOXO3A variants very common in 90 year olds, they were even more common in 100 year olds, emphasizing the importance of genetics for aging well. The CAU work confirms earlier research performed by J. Wilcox that found FOXO3A variants among Japanese American centenarians. Both papers were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). CAU has a partner group in France that showed similar results there. Taken together, these studies suggest that FOXO3A may be a global factor for longevity. While none of these teams have worked to extend human life per se, understanding FOXO3A variations may eventually lead to genetic treatments to help us all live past the century mark.
The past few decades have seen a growing interest in longevity as medicine continues to advance life expectancy. Groups like the Methuselah Foundation (sponsors of the MPrize) are actively seeking technology to extend lifespans. Yet, understanding aging is not an exact science. We do know that genetics, environmental risks/lifestyle, and strong social bonds are all part of what helps someone live longer. Studies of centenarians, however, have suggested that while genetics don't seem to make a big difference in the early decades of old age, they have a profound effect determining who makes it into extreme old age. Variants in FOXO3A may be one of the key ingredients that help take a healthy 80 year old, and turn her into a healthy 110 year old. Unfortunately, we can't know which genes are important without actually understanding how they work to preserve us as we age.
It's important that we make it clear that everyone has a FOXO3A gene. It is the variation in single sections of that gene (single nucleotide polymorphisms) which are important. CAU looked at 16 of these SNPs, while Wilcox studied 3. As we better understand which of these SNPs are key for longevity, you'll be able to test for them with personal DNA tests or whole genome sequencing.
Of course, you probably don't just want to know if you have great gene variants, you probably also want to be able to exchange your genes for better ones. There have been some promising results from scientists studying how limited genetic manipulation can extend the life of mice. In humans, however, we are likely to seek ways of producing the effects of genetic manipulation without actually splicing our genes. The FOXO3A gene codes for the FOXO3A protein. If we figure out how longevity variants of FOXO3A change the protein (in its form, frequency, etc) we could then produce drugs that replicate that change and give our bodies long life.
CAU was able to perform such a (relatively) large study so quickly thanks to the Schleswig Holstein biobank known as Popgen. It has more than 650 samples of centenarian DNA on file. Biobanks store genetic samples for use in scientific studies and are a resource of growing importance. I wonder what other insights we'll develop in the next few years as biobank data becomes available to more researchers in a variety of fields. Getting older is wonderful if you are still healthy. Genetic research may not only tell us how to increase lifespans, but also how to extend our youth.
I'll be taking a personal DNA test very soon (an article on that is forthcoming) and the CAU research has me excited about what I could learn. Admittedly, I doubt that any SNP detection company is ready to test for these FOXO3A variants yet, but there's still a ton more to know. Genetics don't dominate every part of your life but, as this research shows, there are times when they become very important. Learning more about your genes is the first step to taking advantage of (and compensating for) your body's natural inclinations. I can't wait.