Mahtab Jafari
Mahtab Jafari hopes her students find inspiration. "You have to get up every morning being excited about your work," she says, "even as an undergraduate." Paul R. Kennedy

A slightly sweet fragrance lingers in the humid air of Mahtab Jafari’s UC Irvine laboratory, where she and a dozen researchers, graduate students and undergrads in pharmaceutical sciences are seeking a compound to prolong healthy life.

A blender’s whir reveals the aroma’s source: a banana smoothie, but not for the humans. The puree, spiked with the essence of Rhodiola rosea, is for tens of thousands of fruit flies living in sponge-topped test tubes.

A nearly pure extract of R. rosea – a plant sometimes called golden root – not only extends the lives of fruit flies an average 24 percent but protects cultured human cells from the damaging effects of ultraviolet light and the herbicide paraquat, Jafari and her team discovered.

Their findings, reported in June in Free Radical Biology & Medicine and Free Radical Research, also show that the plant decreases the production of toxic superoxides in flies.

The chemist in Jafari, assistant professor of pharmaceutical sciences, is curious about how the botanical works. It doesn’t safeguard cells against oxidation in the same way as other promising anti-aging compounds such as resveratrol. Nor does it neutralize destructive oxygen molecules produced by cellular furnaces known as mitochondria.

It’s the kind of puzzle that has captivated Jafari since fifth grade in Iran, when she finished reading a science textbook in the first weeks of class and demanded another. Her teacher soon had her tutoring classmates. She still relishes that role and has earned the UCI Academic Senate’s Distinguished Assistant Professor Award for Teaching.

“I always thought science was fascinating and very cool,” says Jafari, who came to UCI in 1997 as a clinical pharmacologist and began directing the university’s cholesterol clinic in 1998.

After a three-year stint in private industry, she was lured back to UCI in 2005 by the chance to guide budding scientists as a founding faculty member of the university’s new pharmaceutical sciences department. Another draw was the opportunity to conduct research on aging.

“After working for almost 10 years in the pharmacotherapy of cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases, I realized it all falls under the umbrella of aging,” she explains.

If the aging process could be slowed at the molecular level, Jafari theorized, so too could the progression of age-related diseases. She screened 75 anti-aging compounds, botanicals and pharmaceuticals and got the most striking results from R. rosea.

The flowering plant has long been a folk remedy in cold, mountainous regions of Europe and Asia. In the 1940s, Russian scientists began studying its effect on endurance, memory and mood. Since then, research has shown it can reduce blood glucose levels in diabetic mice, slow the growth of tumors in rats and protect snail larvae from some environmental threats.

To see if R. rosea might also prolong the span and quality of life, Jafari started testing it on fruit flies, which live a matter of weeks, not decades. She and assistant project scientist Samuel E. Schriner are now testing it on mice. “You can’t study lifespan extension in humans,” she notes. “We just live too long.”

The puzzle of how the plant works is beginning to take shape. “The data are so exciting,” Jafari says, “that some nights I just want to wake up at 4 a.m. and start writing.”