Discovery Could Lead To New Treatments For Cancer, Neurodegeneration, Aging And Viral Infections

The good news is Americans are living longer than ever. The bad news is, well, maybe they’re not. Only time will tell whether the nations two-year slump in life expectancy will continue. So in the meantime, what can the most indulgent nation in the world hope for as far as longer life? The answer may come from another country altogether.


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in its December report on mortality dropped a bomb: Life expectancy in America actually fell in 2016. And what’s worse it fell for the second year in a row. In other words, an American baby born in 2016 can expect to live on average 78.6 years, down from 78.9 in 2014. The last time life expectancy fell for two consecutive years was in 1962 and 1963.  The last time a decline for three straight years was recorded in America was when the Spanish flu pandemic ravaged the whole world.

According to The Economist, some statistics suggest that this alarming trend is caused by the epidemic of  a deadly addiction to opioids. “Drug overdoses claimed more than 63,000 lives in 2016.”

FILE – In this Sept. 7, 2016, file photo, released by the East Liverpool Police Department, a young child sits in a vehicle behind his grandmother, Rhonda Pasek and her boyfriend, James Acord, both of whom are unconscious from a drug overdose, in East Liverpool, Ohio. A judge has given relatives custody of the boy. The East Liverpool Review reports no one contested the granting of custody to the boy’s great aunt and uncle during a hearing Monday, Dec. 19 in Columbiana County. (East Liverpool Police Department via AP, File)

Still, heart disease and cancer remained the leading causes of death in 2016. Although the decrease in mortality from these maladies has begun to level off, they have until now been the chief drivers of the steady increase in life expectancy, The Economist reported.

A category called ‘unintentional injuries’—which includes drug overdoses—moved to third place, from fourth place in 2015 and fifth place in 2012. “Although unintentional injuries caused just 6% of deaths in 2016, they claim mostly people in the prime of their lives. A young person’s death cuts average life expectancy by more than the death of an older person,” The Economist reported.

In this Friday, June 1, 2018, photo, small vials of fentanyl are shown in the inpatient pharmacy at the University of Utah Hospital in Salt Lake City. Amid the nation’s opioid epidemic, hospitals are struggling to get widely used injected pain medicines because of ongoing supply shortages. The shortages affect just about every corner of the hospital, from the operating room and emergency department. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

So though statistics may tell one tale about mortality rates, researchers in Switzerland have found that the story hardly ends there.

Researchers at the laboratory of Lucas Pelkmans, professor at the Institute of Molecular Life Sciences at the University of Zurich (UZH), announced today they have discovered which proteins control phase separation during cell division; and their discovery just might open up a whole new phase of its own for the treatment of cancer, neurodegenerative diseases, aging processes and viral infections.

“The knowledge that this physico-chemical process in cells is actively regulated by enzymes is highly relevant to the research into and treatment of various wide-spread diseases. If phase separation during cell division does not work properly, the separation of the chromosomes is incomplete and they are then incorrectly distributed to the daughter cells – a significant characteristic of numerous kinds of cancer,” the UZH reported. “Many protein defects that possibly cause neurodegenerative problems are also presumably the consequence of a failed intracellular phase separation.”

Because of their discovery Pelkmans said, “new strategies can be pursued to prevent mistakes” in the cell divisions process.

Workers fumigate ahead of Carnival celebrations in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photographer: Dado Galdieri/Bloomberg

The discovery also affects the study of viruses that scientists are just now beginning to learn could be the genesis of many of the world’s most deadly diseases as well as aging. “Both the distribution of the cell contents across the daughter cells and the specific retention of ‘old’ components in a cell are important processes in aging. In this case, as well, a finely controlled mixing and separating of phases is an important process that determines the fate of cells,” the UZH reported. “A further possible application would be viral infections: When viruses infect cells, they often trigger the phase separation of molecules. In this way, they create isolated areas in which new viruses can form.”

“Since we now know that these enzymes control intracellular phase separation during viral infections, we can research new antiviral therapies,” Pelkmans said.


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