PENSIONERS could enjoy more comfortable and less painful lives into their 70s, 80s and beyond, following a discovery by North-East scientists.

Researchers at Durham University have identified a drug therapy for a fatal premature ageing disease, which causes children to age up to eight times as fast as usual.

The condition, Hutchinson Gilford Progeria Syndrome – also known as progeria – is extremely rare, affecting about one child in every four to eight million.

However, it is believed the study, the first to show how DNA damage can be limited and repaired, could have much wider health benefits – including reducing the degeneration of some body tissues in old age.

Professor Chris Hutchison, from Durham University’s Biophysical Sciences Institute, said: “The findings are at a very early stage but they show the potential for helping people to live more comfortable and less painful lives when they reach 70 and 80 years of age and beyond.”

He said further studies and clinical trials would be needed to develop drug treatments, but added: “We are using a careful approach that will look at patients with progeria to see if there’s a model that can be used for wider medicine.

“It would be great to find a way to help relieve some of the effects of progeria and to extend children’s lives, while also finding a way to help increasingly ageing populations in many parts of the world.”

Children with progeria are born apparently healthy, before accelerated ageing begins at 18 to 24 months, with growth failure, hair loss, skin ageing, heart disease and strokes common.

Scientists from Durham and Bologna observed changes in damaged cells after administering a drug known as NAC and found that giving NAC combined with other drugs might improve the health of children affected.

Prof Hutchison said: “We’ve found that DNA damage can be controlled and our findings could be an important step to helping both children with progeria and older people to live lives that are less debilitating in terms of health problems.”

The findings are the first results of an 18-month study funded by the Association for Cancer Research, One North East and the EU and are published in the journal Human Molecular Genetics.