London: A new anti-ageing drug may be just five years away, say scientists who have identified the role of an enzyme in muscle wasting and associated age-related problems.
Researchers at the University of Birmingham believe that inhibiting the enzyme could hold the key to developing ways of preventing, or reversing, the adverse effects of ageing.
The research is a significant step in understanding the role played by the enzyme '11beta-HSD1' in the degenerative effects of ageing - including sarcopenia (age related muscle wasting).
Researchers claim the anti-ageing drug could be available to the general public within the next five years, according to the Mirror.
The expression of 11beta-HSD1, responsible for activating the steroid hormone cortisol, was increased in the muscles of older females.
About 134 healthy volunteers, aged between 20-80, underwent physical and biochemical tests at a clinical research facility.
The findings show that expression of 11beta-HSD1 in skeletal muscles is increased 2.72-fold in women aged over 60 years of age, compared to those aged between 20 and 40. In male participants, no difference was seen.
High levels of the enzyme aligned with increased levels of cortisol, reduced grip strength, insulin resistance and a poorer body composition profile.
"As yet, we don't know why it appears to only occur in women, it is obviously an interesting area for further research. We are planning to look at whether hormones such as estrogens could be involved," Dr Zaki Hassan-Smith, from the University of Birmingham, said.
The research team wanted to investigate novel ways of increasing the healthy life span - the years in which people can maintain active lifestyles without the debilitating impact of muscle wasting.
"Looking at this particular enzyme seemed like an intriguing way forward. We knew how it works in relation to Cushing's Syndrome, which is characterised by similar symptoms, and thought it would be worthwhile applying what we knew to the ageing population," said Hassan-Smith.
Cushing's Syndrome is a rare disease caused by high cortisol levels, and those who suffer from the syndrome see marked changes in their body composition.
The effects can be devastating for patients who can develop features such as muscle wasting and weakness, weight gain, thinning of the bones, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.
At present there is no accepted pharmacological treatment for sarcopenia but pharmaceutical companies are developing and testing inhibitors of 11beta-HSD1 with a focus on treatments for such conditions as diabetes.
The team is excited about taking the results of their study forward into future research, with one eye on adapting the inhibitors already in development to combat muscle ageing. The study was published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism.