Part of the way in which the body maintains health at a cellular level is through the process of autophagy.
This involves cells disposing of their own broken and disused parts to prevent the buildup of debris.
If autophagy is not efficient, the cellular debris that accumulates can become harmful, exposing healthy cells to stress and contributing to the development of a range of diseases and conditions, including cancer.
Previous research has shown that there are a few ways to induce or boost autophagy, including intermittent fasting and exercise.
There are also certain compounds that may help enhance this self-renewing cellular process. In a new study, researchers from the University of Graz in Austria have turned to a specific class of compounds called flavonoids.
These are naturally occurring substances found in many common plants, with a proven antioxidant effect that, researchers believe, shields cellular health and may help protect the body against numerous diseases.
Autophagy, explains study author Professor Frank Madeo, Ph.D., “is a cleansing and recycling process” that disposes of “superfluous material, especially cellular garbage like aggregated proteins.”
Prof. Madeo and the team thought that there could be a connection between this cellular process and the action of flavonoids. In their new study — the findings of which appear in the journal Nature Communications — they analyzed 180 such compounds in search of the one best-equipped to “counteract age-related cell demise.”
A plant substance with protective effects
The researchers eventually stopped at a compound known as 4,4′-dimethoxychalcone (DMC). This flavonoid is highly present in Angelica keiskei, or ashitaba, a plant from the carrot family that is native to Japan.
Japanese tradition holds the ashitaba plant in great regard, and to this day it is a key ingredient in Japanese botanical medicine.
Thanks to the current study’s findings, evidence regarding ashitaba’s benefits is accumulating exponentially. “It is always nice to find a scientific rationale for traditional medical folk tales,” Prof. Madeo notes.
After identifying DMC as a potential autophagy-booster, the researchers’ first step was to conduct experiments in yeast cells. These soon revealed that the substance did protect these cells from age-related damage, and it did so more efficiently than other compounds known to bring similar benefits, such as resveratrol, a phenol found in grape skin.
Further experiments on fruit fly and worm cells yielded the same results. “Remarkably, chronic DMC treatment […] prolonged the median lifespan of both model organisms by approximately 20 percent,” the investigators write.
The team did not stop here, however. It also tested the effect of DMC on mouse heart cells, findings that the substance once more boosted autophagy. DMC also appeared to protect against liver damage caused by ethanol (pure alcohol).
Finally, Prof. Madeo and colleagues tested the compound’s effect on different types of human cells, confirming the same positive outcome, although the researchers warn that real certainty can only come from future clinical trials.
“The experiments indicate that the effects of DMC might be transferable to humans, although we have to be cautious and wait for real clinical trials.”
Prof. Frank Madeo, Ph.D.
The next step from here, the researchers say, will be to conduct a more detailed study in mice, assessing whether DMC’s protective effect on heart cells means that the substance will also shield the rodents from age-related diseases.
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