By Cristy Lytal
Valter Longo, PhD, is out to prove that gerontology is a young man’s game. The 46-year-old USC professor of gerontology and biological sciences has dedicated his career to slowing the implacable process of aging.
Growing up in Genoa, Italy, Longo spent countless hours emulating the guitar stylings of rock legends Jimi Hendrix and Mark Knopfler from Dire Straits. At age 16, he moved to Chicago to take jazz guitar lessons before heading to the University of North Texas to continue his studies.
During his second year of college as a music major, Longo was tapped to direct the marching band. As his music sensibilities were deeply rooted in rock, he refused, and the music department told him to find a different major. “Without hesitation, I said, ‘I want to learn about aging,’” he said.
After receiving his PhD in biochemistry at UCLA, Longo decided to take a molecular approach to aging, so he joined the UCLA labs of chemist Joan S. Valentine, PhD, and geneticist Edith B. Gralla, PhD.
Looking at yeast, a simple unicellular organism, he discovered a group of genes, also present in humans, that promote the aging process in response to glucose. By knocking out these genes, he could mimic a calorie- and glucose-restricted diet and extend the yeast’s lifespan.
First as a postdoctoral fellow, and then as a faculty member and director of the Longevity Institute at USC, Longo has continued his research into the genes that control aging.
In 2001, he discovered another group of yeast genes that control both aging and overall growth in response to amino acids. He later found a human population in Ecuador that had a mutation in the equivalent genes. As a result, they lacked a growth-hormone receptor, and this made them both small in stature and long-lived, with very little diabetes or cancer susceptibility.
By inhibiting these same groups of genes either by mutations or starvation, Longo found evidence that healthy cells might receive protection not only from the aging stress, but also from chemotherapy effects, and that cancer cells might become more sensitive to chemotherapy. Clinical trials are currently underway at the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, Mayo Clinic and elsewhere to explore whether fasting can improve outcomes in patients receiving chemotherapy for lymphoma as well as breast, prostate and colorectal cancers.
“When you take away a lot of nutrients, the cancer struggles,” said Longo. “And then if you take away the nutrients and you give chemo, it struggles even more.”
Longo is currently collaborating with Gregor Adams, PhD, assistant professor at the Eli and Edythe Broad Center for Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at USC, to publish a study on diets that can reduce immunosuppression in the elderly or chemotherapy patients. He’s also conducting a clinical trial exploring whether a five-day fast can stimulate stem cell-based regeneration of multiple organ systems.