Laureates 2011

2011 Future - Ageing-Facing the Challenge

Cynthia Kenyon

c_kenyon_photo_2010_smallProfessor, Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, University of California, San Francisco

Director, UCSF Hillblom Center for the Biology of Ageing, American Cancer Society Research Professor

Cynthia Kenyon is recognized as a pioneer most responsible for first showing that the ageing of the C. elegans worm is under genetic control, for identifying key genes involved in the regulation of ageing, and for demonstrating the mechanisms by which these genes control ageing. Through visionary and rigorous studies with C. elegans, she showed that a hormonal pathway controlled by insulin-like and IGF-1-like hormones is a major determinant of the rate of ageing in the worm.

Thanks to the pioneering studies by Kenyon there is now a strong reason to think that genetic or drug-induced extension of lifespan could delay the onset of diseases of old age. This concept has revolutionary implications.

Cynthia Kenyon became involved in investigating the ageing process in the early 1990s. By comparing C. elegans worms with normal (short) life span and long-lived C. elegans mutants, Kenyon discovered that mutations that reduced the activity of the daf-2 gene doubled the lifespan of the worms which remained youthful and active much longer than their wild-type, normal counterparts. These observations suggested that daf-2 mutations altered the rate of ageing demonstrating that a single specific gene could have a truly profound effect on ageing.

Kenyon also discovered the daf-16 gene being the one that could keep an animal young. The daf-2 and daf-16 genes affect lifespan by influencing the level of the body’s antioxidants, the integrity of its immune system, its ability to repair its proteins, and many other beneficial processes. Another important finding of Kenyon was that the daf-16 gene is influenced by signals from the environment and also by signals from the reproductive system. This finding was used to extend the lifespan of worms by six fold.

Other investigators showed that daf-2-like genes control the lifespan of fruit flies, mice and possibly also humans.  When these genes are changed, ageing is slowed and lifespan is extended.

In summarizing her own achievements and those of her research team, Cynthia Kenyon wrote: "to me it seems possible that a fountain of youth, made of molecules and not simply dreams, will someday be a reality”.

Among Cynthia Kenyon’s honors are a member of the National Academy of Sciences; American Academy of Arts & Science; Honorary Doctorate, University of Paris; King Faisal International Prize for Medicine, La Fondation IPSEN Prize; and the AARP Inspire Award.