Noyal-Muzillac (France) (AFP)
In the fictional connections he made between immortal vampires and bats, Dracula creator Bram Stoker might have been right.
“Maybe it’s all in the blood,” says Emma Teeling, a geneticist who studies the exceptional longevity of bats in the hopes of finding benefits for humans.
The University College Dublin researcher is working with the Bretagne Vivante charity to study bats living in rural churches and schools in Brittany, western France.
“We take some blood, but rather than being the vampires of the bats, we make them share their secrets,” she said.
These secrets are tantalizing.
Bats not only live longer than other animals their size, but they also stay healthy longer and can harbor pathogens like Ebola or coronaviruses without getting sick.
Teeling, who presented his research to AFP in an interview reproduced here in edited form, focuses on long-lived big-eared bats.
The goal is to find the key to a longer, healthier life for people.
“I firmly believe that this lies in the study of bats,” she says.
– What is so special about bats? –
Typically in nature there is a pattern – almost a law – that little things live very fast and die young due to very fast metabolism.
Bats are unique, they are among the smallest of all mammals, but they can live extremely long lives. They seem to have developed mechanisms to slow down the aging process.
It is not eternal youth – everything dies and aging has to catch up with you, but the rate of aging is much slower in bats, their lifespan is much longer.
Think of a centenarian who is really healthy until the last few weeks of his life. This is what we want and this is what bats have.
– How to extract their secret? –
No one knew what happened to bats as they got older.
The only way to age a bat is to look at the bones of its fingers, if the joints are not yet merged, this bat is still a baby, when merged, it is an adult.
But since 2010 Bretagne Vivante has put a small chip as we would for a dog or a cat, this is called a pit tag, under the skin of these bats when they are babies.
Every year we come back to these dorms where the females give birth and we catch the whole colony, we take a little wing, a little blood, and we go back to my lab in Ireland and we look at what has changed as ‘they age, following some biomarkers of aging.
– What are you looking for? –
We’re looking at these things called telomeres: At the end of each of your chromosomes in your cells, you have these protective caps – like the bumper of a car – and each time your cells replicate, they grow larger and larger. shorter.
They get very short, the cell should self-destruct but sometimes it just stays there and gets old, potentially leading to the aging process.
But in longest-living bats like mouse-eared bats, telomeres don’t shorten with age. They can protect their DNA.
We sequenced the genes of young, middle-aged and older bats and what we found was extraordinary: They increase their ability to repair their DNA with age and repair damage caused by life. Ours is diminishing.
As we get older we get arthritis, we suffer from inflammation, bats don’t seem to do that and the question is how?
So we discovered that they repair the damage done to their DNA and that they are also able to modulate their immune response, keeping it balanced between antiviral and anti-inflammatory responses.
When you look at Covid-19 for example, what kills someone is this over-excited immune response. In Dublin, we ran an experiment on antiviral and anti-inflammatory cytokines and found that if a human with the immune profile of a bat was hospitalized, they wouldn’t end up on a ventilator. If it’s the other way around, then more like a mouse, they end up on a fan.
We share the same genes as bats, with slight tweaks and modifications. Imagine if we found the little control gene that regulates these effects, then we could make a drug to mimic it in humans.
– How long will it take? –
I would have said 10 years, but look how fast everything is going now.
People are really interested in watching bats for answers, there has been a huge acceleration.
We sequenced the genome, that was the first step, then we have this field data and we are working with laboratories around the world that are developing the necessary cellular tools.
We have to go on and believe it is possible.
© 2021 AFP