A male fruit fly drinks alcohol-laced food from from a tube. (AP Photo/University of California, San Francisco, G. Ophir)

For hundreds of years, scientists have been trying to find a way to keep people from aging, or at least to slow down the process. For hundreds of years, they’ve failed.

But now a team of researchers has succeeded in doing it for the fruit fly. That’s one small step for the fruit fly, but since the fruit fly has a genetic makeup similar to humans, perhaps there’s a giant step for mankind down the road.

The Swiss scientists on the case don’t claim to have achieved that dream but, but their findings are tantalizing.

By activating a gene that kills off unhealthy cells, they managed to extend the month-long lifespan of the fruit fly by 50 to 60 percent. It’s “a good strategy to maintain tissue health and therefore delay aging and prolong lifespan,” said Eduardo Moreno, the lead author a new study published Thursday in science journal Cell.

Over time, cells in the human body become damaged from external factors, such as UV-light from the sun. It’s all part of the aging process. Moreno and his team identified a gene that targets damaged cells and gets rid of them in order to sustain vital organs such as the brain. Typically, there are two copies of the gene in each cell — one handed down from the mother and one from the father. The scientists created a third copy and injected it to help the organism knock out its bad cells even faster.

His team has dubbed the gene “azot,” named after a mythological Aztec creature known for taking out fishing boats to protect the fish. The gene’s job is very similar. “Having that gene is beneficial for the organism because it eliminates the cell that causes the problem,” he said.

The scientists combined this type of improved cell selection with other treatments, such as calorie restriction, which has been shown to prolong life in animals. Moreno said his team wanted to know if the two treatments — cell selection and calorie restriction — could be used together. Doing so further increased the fly’s lifespan, a finding that surprised them, he said.

“If we could do the same to a human who may live 80 years, it would be like living to 160 years old,” Moreno told The Washington Post.

Since a similar gene is found in human cells, Moreno said, research suggests the same thing is happening in humans — that the gene is defeating the body’s damaged cells. He speculated that people who age well could have this mechanism working faster than average. Manipulating the mechanism could potentially delay the aging process by promoting the healthier cells.