The Methuselah fruit fly lives for about four months – four times longer than an ordinary fruit fly.
They’re also more vigorous. “They beat up the other flies and take their women away,” says Gregory Benford, a retired UC Irvine physics professor.
Benford, 72, is co-founder of Genescient Corp., a Fountain Valley research and development company that studies fruit flies to learn how to slow human aging and aging-related diseases, such as Alzheimer’s.
Genescient’s work is based on the research of Michael Rose, a UCI professor and evolutionary biologist who’s been studying aging for more than 30 years. He created the Methuselah fly breed.
Using what has been learned from the Methuselah flies, Genescient is working to develop supplements to help human genes age better. “Aging is mostly the failure to repair,” Benford says.
Genescient’s latest drug, which delays the onset of Alzheimer’s in fruit flies, is now being tested in humans. In October, the company began a year-long trial of the supplement with 35 human patients who are in the intermediate stage of Alzheimer’s.
“We hope we can slow or possibly reverse the symptoms of Alzheimer’s,” Benford says. If the trials are successful, the company will test the supplement with a larger pool of patients. Benford retired from UCI in 2006, after 35 years of teaching there, and launched Genescient with his business partner Cristina Rizza, a cardiologist.
So how did a physicist get into aging research? In part, it’s personal. Benford’s first wife, Joan Abbe Benford, endured a battle with kidney disease that led to her slow deterioration and death from cancer in 2002. “I noticed that the genomic revolution wasn’t yielding anything,” he says. He figured he had the wits and wherewithal to do something.
He’s also interested in genes because he is an identical twin. His brother, James Benford, also a physicist, is a former Genescient board member and president of Microwave Sciences Inc. in Lafayette, California.
The company’s early research compared the genes of the Methuselah fruit flies to ordinary flies to identify the genes that might be responsible for longevity. Then, it found the overlap of these genes in the Methuselah flies and healthy older people. About 70% of fruit fly genes are in humans.
Methuselahs live longer because of their robustness, Benford says. They mate and reproduce more often than ordinary flies. They’re larger, harder to swat and noisier when they fly. They’re sort of famous in the field of aging research. Early on, Benford and Rizza bought the Methuselah flies from Rose for their experiments. They set up a separate company that manages and cares for the flies.
Life Code, a spinoff of Genescient, already markets and sells a supplement for humans that the company says prolongs life in fruit flies; the supplement hasn’t been reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration.
Genescient employs UCI graduates to do the lab work. “It’s terrific to have a place where you know you can get good employees,” Benford says. “It’s extremely tedious studying flies. Our lab people are very patient.”
Benford and Rizza self-funded their venture at the start. The company has since had angel funding. Benford put at least $1 million into the company from book royalties that he invested in stocks. He is a noted science fiction author who’s written more than 20 novels.
“We wanted to produce something that people can take now, not to make some expensive drug to get rich off of,” Benford says. “All of us are quite comfortably well off,” he says. “What we need is years.”
Find out more about Genescient’s research
on aging using Methuselah flies on the company’s website.
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