While aging may be one of the most familiar (and certainly one of the most discussed) aspects of human biology, it remains one of the least understood. We age but no one really knows precisely how we get there.
Thanks to a new $10.6 million National Institute on Aging grant to a team on the Florida campus of The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI), the puzzling questions of human aging may soon receive some answers.
TSRI Professor Paul Robbins will be principal investigator of the new five-year study, which will focus on identifying just how damage that accumulates over time drives the human aging process. Scientists from the University of Pittsburgh and the University of California, Riverside, will also participate in the study.
“Aging is thought to be caused by cellular damage triggered by things we are exposed to and produce as part of normal metabolism.” Robbins said. “But it is how the cells respond to that damage over time that we believe drives aging.”
Robbins compares that cellular response to calling 911 for help to put out a small fire. While the firefighting response could lead to a lot of collateral damage, if firefighters identify steps to minimize the damage—say, keeping water use to a limited area—the collateral damage can be minimized. Similarly, Robbins says, there will be a lot of new opportunities to minimize the widespread degenerative changes that occur with aging.
The scientists will focus their research on stress caused by DNA damage, specifically by looking at the effects of taking away a cell’s ability to repair this damage. TSRI Associate Professor Laura Niedernhofer, a co-investigator on the grant, showed several years ago that taking away a cell’s ability to repair DNA damage causes very rapid aging in humans and in animal models. The question to be addressed now is how? And how to stop it?
Although not the primary focus of the research, Robbins is also looking at compounds and even stem cells that could affect these stress response pathways in a therapeutic way. “It’s something that our research and the TSRI research environment lend themselves to—identifying pathways as potential therapeutic targets and screening potential drug candidates,” he said. “The ultimate goal isn’t to allow people to live longer, but to help them maintain good health as they age—what some are calling a person’shealthspan.” That in itself would be significant.
It is estimated that in the next 20 years, the number of individuals in the United States over the age of 65 will double, reaching over 70 million individuals, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. More than 90 percent of Americans over 65 years of age have at least one chronic disease, while more than 70 percent have at least two, according to the National Council on Aging. These chronic diseases account for three-quarters of our healthcare spending, amounting to approximately $3 trillion in costs last year alone.