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CNN Today

Genetic Key may Control Development of Certain Diseases Associated with Aging

Aired April 11, 2000 - 1:39 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: Old research is turning up new answers about the aging process.

As CNN's Rhonda Rowland now reports, a genetic key now may control the development of certain diseases as we grow older.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RHONDA ROWLAND, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A single gene we all have may hold the cards to many diseases we develop in old age: Alzheimer's, cancer, atherosclerosis, arthritis. It's the P-21 gene. Scientists discovered it seven years ago, but all they knew then was that it killed cells. But now researchers at the University of Illinois-Chicago found to their surprise the P-21 gene may do a lot more.

STEVE WARREN, EMORY UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF MEDICINE: So far, it seems that there are a few genes that are kind of master switches, if you will, and this may well be one of them.

ROWLAND: It works like this: In each cell there are 23 chromosomes. The P-21 gene resides on chromosome 6. The gene influences a number of other genes by either turning them on or off. Scientists use the term "expressed."

IGOR RONINSON, UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS-CHICAGO: When we further looked at the genes that are induced by P-21, we found a number of genes that are known to be expressed at a higher level in old cells and in old people.

ROWLAND: Which in turn may lead to the development of many age- related diseases.

(on camera): Now that scientists know more about what the P-21 gene does, other scientists and pharmaceutical companies can use the information to develop drugs against these various diseases.

(voice-over): But there's still another piece to the disease process puzzle. If we all have the P-21 gene, why do some people develop Alzheimer's while others suffer from arthritis?

WARREN: Everybody has variations in their own genome, and that variation can lead to predispositions to certain kinds of diseases as well as protection.

ROWLAND: Environmental influences like charred meat or bad air quality can also contribute to the development of disease.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROWLAND: But taken together, the mapping of the human genome and what we know about the environment will eventually, researchers predict, lead to new drugs to combat the effects of old age -- Lou.

WATERS: I would imagine the drug makers are saying: there's billions of dollars here we can make off of something like this, if we can keep people from getting certain diseases as they grow older. What do they do with this information?

ROWLAND: You're exactly right. And now, probably, a lot of them are thinking about going to their laboratories and working with the P- 21 gene, and now that they have this target, the researchers say they're really halfway there, to developing something that could perhaps counteract the bad effects of P-21.

Now with that they could, perhaps, slow down the natural biological process that leads to these diseases. So it wouldn't necessarily, Lou, get rid of these diseases, but just slow the progression, slow the development.

WATERS: So what we're talking is about not necessarily curing old age. There's a lot of healthy older people, a lot of healthy really older people. It's a matter of preventing some of these diseases associated as we grow older?

ROWLAND: That's right, because we'll never cure old age. We're all going to get old. But hopefully what they can do is help us live healthier in our old age and delay the onset of these diseases so we have better quality lives.

And the other interesting thing, Lou, with all of this genetic information they're getting, they're going to be able to get to the point where they can say to you: You're more at risk of developing arteriosclerosis or arthritis, and then they can tell you what you can do in your day-to-day life to reduce the risk of developing it.

WATERS: In covering the story of aging in America, as I've been doing for the past 10 years, I have talked to many gerontologists who say this unit that we're walking around in, here, is capable of surviving 120 years on this planet. But it's been a matter, all this time, if you would really want that, because of the associated degeneration of the body in that period of time and that's what science is really concentrating on now.

ROWLAND: That's right, and in fact, it may get to the point where we may be OK about living to that age, because again, we'll have higher quality lives, we'll have sharper minds, we won't have as much disability. And that's what we all want.

WATERS: Yes, we'll all grow old if we're lucky -- Rhonda Rowland.

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