Life-extending hormone bolsters the body’s immune function

Jan 14, 2016

A hormone that extends lifespan in mice by 40% is produced by specialized cells in the thymus gland, according to a new study by Yale School of Medicine researchers. The team also found that increasing the levels of this hormone, called FGF21, protects against the loss of immune function that comes with age.

Published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Jan. 11, the study’s findings have future implications for improving immune function in the elderly, for obesity, and for illnesses such as cancer and type-2 diabetes.

When functioning normally, the thymus produces new T cells for the immune system, but with age, the thymus becomes fatty and loses its ability to produce new T cells. This loss of new T cells in the body is one cause of increased risk of infections and certain cancers in the elderly.

Led by Vishwa Deep Dixit, professor of comparative medicine and immunobiology at Yale School of Medicine, the researchers studied transgenic mice with elevated levels of FGF21. The team knocked out the gene’s function and studied the impact of decreasing levels of FGF21 on the immune system. They found that increasing the levels of FGF21 in old mice protected the thymus from age-related fatty degeneration and increased the ability of the thymus to produce new T cells, while FGF21 deficiency accelerated the degeneration of the thymus in old mice.

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