Skin wrinkling, one of the most conspicuous signs of aging, is the result of breakdown of structural molecules such as collagen and elastin. In our lab and others, we’re accumulating evidence that proteases secreted by senescent fibroblasts are to blame.

Therefore, my ears always prick up when I hear reports like a recent one from Kim and Chung, who describe a plant alkaloid (berberine) that can reduce the production of matrix metalloproteases by dermal fibroblasts in response to UV irradiation. Is the compound decreasing senescence in response to DNA damage — possibly allowing mutated cells to escape cell cycle arrest — or is it instead diminishing the senescence-associated secretion of degradative enzymes? If the latter is true, the protein targeted by berberine will be an excellent target for pharmaceutical development.

Also on a plant-related note, another group has identified a botanical compound that slows the production of advanced glycation endproducts (AGEs); we’ve seen similar results from corn silk extracts. It does make one wonder whether an anti-aging pharmacopoeia is just sitting there in nature, waiting to be discovered.