March 31, 1996 in City

The Fountain Of Youth Lies In Fruit Flies

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Tags:column

“And may you stay - forever young.” - Bob Dylan

Eastern Washington University microbiologist Jim Fleming has discovered a way to boost life expectancy as much as 20 percent.

Unfortunately, the Spokane resident can as yet only perform this miracle on fruit flies.

“These are the same ones you find on your bananas,” says Fleming, peering into a milk bottle occupied by 100 flitting fruit flies.

“But they hold the secret of understanding longevity.”

A latter-day Ponce de Leon, Fleming, 48, is on a high-tech search for the Fountain of Youth.

If only the guy would hurry up.

I made a trip to Fleming’s cramped office in Cheney the other day, hoping the professor could set back the hands on my own biological clock.

My 45th birthday lies just around the next bend like fresh road kill. Most of my friends are also teetering in the twilight of geezerdom.

With the Woodstock generation closing in on adult diapers, why should damnable fruit flies get all the breaks? Just what the world needs, longer-living vermin.

“Aging can be manipulated. It’s not some fixed law of nature,” adds Fleming.

“We’re just not there yet with humans.”

Fruit flies are apparently more than suitable subjects for biological study.

The critters hatch in a dozen days, there’s certainly no shortage of the pests and their life span is just 60-to-80 days.

Better yet, no animal rights wackos have ever stormed a research lab to free poor imprisoned fruit flies.

“They make a good model,” says Fleming of his teensy pals, “and aging at the cellular level is pretty much the same in all organisms.”

Fleming has spent most of his scientific career trying to unravel humanity’s most perplexing mystery.

The Richland native studied the effects of aging on red blood cells at a NASA research center. He spent 12 years investigating longevity at the Linus Pauling Institute in Palo Alto, Calif.

His work received major grants and Fleming still operates a lab at the California-based Institute of Molecular Medical Sciences.

He subscribes to the popular theory that oxygen is the real culprit behind aging.

It is especially troubling to think that something we need to breathe is slowly killing us. But Fleming makes this nightmare sound very plausible.

The same oxidation process that froze the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz, he says, will over time kill off the energy-producing components of our non-renewable, vital cells.

We’re talking heart and brain and muscle. Oh, my.

Professor Fruit Fly, does this mean humanity is slowly rusting away like a scrap yard of derelict Fords? “Aging,” agrees the scientist, “is sort of a fancy rusting process.”

That explains why my knees creak in the morning.

Fleming uses delicate genetic engineering techniques to produce hardier fruit flies whose cells are more protected against the corrosive effects of oxygen.

These are the George Burnses of the fruit fly world, living well beyond their days, telling jokes, smoking tiny cigars….

Here’s the billion-dollar question: When will we wrinkling Baby Boomers cash in on all this weird science? A 20-percent bump ain’t much in a fly’s fleeting lifespan, but to a human being, why, it could mean 10-to-20 extra years of video rentals.

Fleming believes new anti-aging drugs will hit the market in the next decade or two.

Until those magic pills arrive, the researcher does what he can. He takes regular doses of vitamin C, vitamin E, anti-oxidants and listens to the Rolling Stones.

“If Keith Richards is still alive,” says Fleming, “there’s hope for all of us.”

, DataTimes


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