Researchers at the US-based USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Science have discovered a drug that may be able to prolong human life.

The drug “mifepristone” was able to extend the lifespan of two different species—fruit flies (Drosophila) and roundworm (C. Elegans)—in laboratory tests.

Based on these experiments, the researchers were optimistic that this drug could also be used to prolong life in other species, including humans.

The researchers, led by Professor John Tower, published their findings in the Journals of Gerontology: Series A, a peer-reviewed, journal on 10 July.

Prof. Tower explained the human link in a news release on the university website: “In the fly, mifepristone decreases reproduction, alters innate immune response and increases life span… In the human, we know that mifepristone decreases reproduction and alters innate immune response, so might it also increase life span?”

Medicine for longer life

Mifepristone, also known as RU-486, is already in use to terminate early pregnancy and treat rare diseases like cancer and Cushing’s syndrome.

Here’s how it works to prolong life in drosophila or fruit flies which are often used for such lab experiments: Normally, during sex, the male fruit fly passes on a “sex peptide” (a type of protein) to the female fruit fly that affects the female’s health and reduces lifespan.

However, when the researchers fed mifepristone to the female of the species, it blocked the effects of the sex peptide. This, in turn, led to a decrease in inflammation—one of the health effects of the sex peptide on female fruit flies—and an improvement in overall health. The female fruit who got the drug also lived longer than females who had mated but had not taken this medicine.

How does mifepristone work?

To answer this question, the researchers looked at the changes in the cells, molecules and metabolic processes of the female fruit flies. They found that while sex peptide increases the activity of “juvenile hormone”, mifepristone actually prevents this change from happening.

Juvenile hormone is said to be responsible for the development of a fruit fly from an egg to adulthood. According to the researchers, the sex peptide altered the activity of juvenile hormone in such a way that after mating, the female adopted new metabolic pathways that required more energy and led to inflammation. The researchers also found that this change in juvenile hormone made the female fruit flies more sensitive to substances released by the bacteria in their microbiome (bacteria that live on the body and are normally harmless).

The other species

Prof. Tower worked with another group of researchers at the university; this time, giving the drug to female C. Elegans (roundworm) after mating. The results, the researchers said, were remarkably similar to what they had found in fruit flies.

Prof. Tower explained the significance of this in the release: the fruit fly Drosophila and roundworm C. Elegans are so different from each other, he said, that there is reason to hope that a similar effect of increasing lifespan may be possible in members of other species after they become sexually active. This, he said, may even include us humans.


  1. Landis G.N., Doherty D.V., Yen C., Wang L., Fan Y., Wang I., Vroegop J., Wang T., Wu J., Patel P., Lee S., Abdelmesieh M., Shen J., Promislow D.E.L., Curran S.P., Tower J. Metabolic signatures of life span regulated by mating, sex peptide and mifepristone/RU486 in female drosophila melanogaster. The Journals of Gerontology: Series A, glaa164,
  2. Joy D.S. for USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. Researchers may have found one path to a longer life, 10 July 2020.
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