A commonly used skin care ingredient is one of several newly identified compounds that can mimic the life-extending effect of a starvation diet, finds a new lab study.

Calorie restriction, a dramatic reduction in calorie intake, has been found to slow down the aging process in several animal models. Mice weaned on it from birth live longer but to-date it has not been shown to work in humans, since such an experiment on babies would be a human rights violation. Efforts are on to try and create drugs that can reproduce this effect, without the side effects of starvation.

Toward the goal of identifying potential calorie restriction mimetic compounds, the team made use of existing molecular signatures from human cells treated with a variety of small-molecule drugs. Using standard pattern-matching algorithms to make connections between drug compounds and calorie restriction effects, eleven potential compounds were identified. Five of these were then tested in nematode worms.

They found that allantoin, which is found in botanical extracts of the comfrey plant and is an ingredient of many anti-aging creams, can mimic the effect of calorie restriction and increase lifespan in worms by more than 20%.  

Worms treated with allantoin, rapamycin, trichostatin A and LY-294002 not only lived longer, but also stayed healthier longer. Additionally, when the same compounds were tested in mutant worms they extended lifespan in a way expected from calorie restriction. Further molecular analysis of allantoin suggests it acts by a different mechanism from rapamycin, a well-known longevity drug.

The leap to mammals, much less humans, remains a long way off, since they don't yet know the mechanism by which it acts.