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Study finds well-known drug may slow muscle loss among the elderly

Humans are living longer than ever. But age-related diseases such as sarcopenia – the loss of muscle mass – are on the rise. Researchers in Basel say a well-known drug might help delay the aging process.

The Swiss generally live long lives. According to the most recent statistics, Swiss men live on average to the age of 81.3, and women to 85.3. But as a natural part of aging, over time people’s muscles lose tone, shrink and strength dwindles.

This condition, known as sarcopenia, affects every second or third person over 80, reducing their mobility, autonomy and quality of life. The causes of sarcopenia are diverse: from altered muscle metabolism to changes in nerves supplying muscles.

A group of scientists at the University of Basel’s Biozentrum, which has been investigating the question, has identified a key molecular ‘signature’ of sarcopenia. The team, led by Professor Markus Rüegg, have discovered that mTORC1, which acts as a sensor and controls protein synthesis in the body, also contributes to sarcopenia and its suppression with the well-known drug rapamycin slows age-related muscle wasting.

“Contrary to our expectations, the long-term mTORC1 suppression with rapamycin is overwhelmingly beneficial for skeletal muscle aging in mice, preserving muscle size and strength,” declared Daniel Ham, first author of the study.

To encourage other scientists to further investigate how gene expression in skeletal muscle changes during aging or in response to rapamycin treatment, they have created a web application, SarcoAtlas, which is supported the Centre for Scientific Computing at the University of Basel (sciCORE).

Currently, there is no effective pharmacological therapy to treat sarcopenia. But the scientists say their study gives hope that in the future it may be possible to slow down age-related muscle wasting with treatments that suppress mTORC1 and thereby extend the autonomy and life quality of elderly people.

University of Basel/sb