Clues about how we age found in genetic disorder

4 year old Boy, Zach, was diagnosed with Progeria when he was 11 months old

BETHESDA, MD. - The question is as old as time: is there any way to slow the aging process?

Researchers at the National Institutes of Health did report an exciting new clue today as to why some of us age more rapidly than others. CBS News national correspondent Wyatt Andrews reports they found the clue while studying a childhood disease.

He is a home-run hitting, bubble-chasing, happy 4-year-old boy. But Zach Pickard also has a rare, genetic age disorder called Progeria - which gives him the look of a 60-year old-man, and a life expectancy of only 10 more years.

Learn more about progeria

But new research by Dr. Francis Collins, on why these children age so rapidly, is revealing the genetic roots of why aging happens at all. Children like Zach are born with an excess of the cell destroying protein called Progerin. Dr Collins learned we all have small amounts of Progerin and, Progerin has an "on" switch.

More about Dr. Francis Collins

"We've learned what the signal is that turns that on in you and me," Dr. Collins said. "We didn't know that before."

That signal begins on the very tip ends of our chromosomes, called telomeres. As our cells divide over time, the telomeres get shorter, and that tells the body to produce Progerin. Then, the Progerin causes cells to age.

Zach and 44 other Progeria patients are in a clinical trial to see if an anti-cancer drug that blocks Progerin can reverse their symptoms.

National Human Genome Research Institute

If this drug can help impede the aging process in these children, what does it say for the rest of us?

"People will wonder if it works in dramatic accelerated aging, would it also work in the normal process," Dr. Collins said.

Dr. Collins believes anti-aging therapies will be possible one day - but not with the drugs Zach is taking - in a trial sponsored by The Progeria Research Foundation.

The Progeria Research Foundation

The discovery is changing the way many scientists view the very biology of how we get old.

Thanks to the study of Progeria children, the elusive fountain of youth might be found by turning off the fountain of aging.

  • Wyatt Andrews
    Wyatt Andrews

    Wyatt Andrews is a CBS News National Correspondent based in Washington D.C. He is responsible for tracking trends in politics, health care, energy, the environment and foreign affairs.