LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — UCLA biologists say they have identified a gene that can slow the aging process when activated.

Working with fruit flies, researchers used the gene called AMPK to increase their life spans by about 30 percent. A senior author of the research, published in the journal Cell Reports, said the work could have important implications for delaying disease and aging in humans.

“We have shown that when we activate the gene in the intestine or the nervous system, we see the aging process is slowed beyond the organ system in which the gene is activated,” said David Walker, associat eprofessor of integrative biology and physiology at UCLA.

The findings are important, because protecting the human brain or other key organs from aging could prove to be technically difficult. But slowing the aging process throughout the entire body by triggering AMPK in a more accessible organ, such as the intestine, could solve that problem.

AMPK is activated when cellular  energy levels are low. Humans have the gene, but it is not usually activated at high levels, Walker said.

This latest research, led by doctoral student Matthew Ulgherait, found that triggering AMPK sped up the process of getting rid of “cellular garbage.”

AMPK has been shown to activate a process of discarding old, damaged cellular components. That process, called autophagy, can prevent further damage to cells. Many neurodegenerative diseases, including both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, are associated with the build-up of protein aggregates, a type of cellular garbage, in the brain.

“Instead of studying the diseases of aging — Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, stroke, cardiovascular disease, diabetes — one by one, we believe it may be possible to intervene in the aging process and delay the onset of many of these diseases,” Walker said. “We are not there yet, and it could, of course, take many years, but that is our goal and we think it is realistic.”