Advances in Geroscience Meeting Examines Intersection of Chronic Disease and Aging

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NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins discusses NIH and aging research during his welcome remarks at the Advances in Geroscience summit.

NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins discusses NIH and aging research during his welcome remarks at the Advances in Geroscience summit

On October 30-31, 2013, nearly 500 scientists, advocates, and interested members of the public assembled on the Bethesda campus of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for a groundbreaking scientific summit, Advances in Geroscience: Impact on Healthspan and Chronic Disease. The meeting’s focus on “geroscience,” an integrated approach to the study of diseases and disability associated with growing older, offered participants an opportunity to better understand the interplay between diverse chronic diseases and the single most prevalent shared risk factor—aging—in the hope of eventually opening new avenues for prevention and treatment.

“Advances in Geroscience” was developed by a relatively new collaboration, the Trans-NIH GeroScience Interest Group, or GSIG. With some 20 NIH institutes and centers participating, the group was founded by program scientists from NIA and other institutes to find ways to collaborate and coordinate. The summit itself was supported by the Alliance for Aging Research and the Gerontological Society of America, as well as by private foundations and companies through the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health.

The NIH geroscience summit brought together renowned investigators from a variety of health science disciplines to examine how the basic biology of aging drives chronic disease. NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D., opened the summit speaking about geroscience’s potential for promoting health and longevity, urging the audience to “take full advantage of the opportunities to make new friends, develop new collaborations. This is a field, geroscience, that is very much in wonderful ferment and by being here, you’re part of that.”

Dr. Collins said his own scientific thinking about aging as a risk for disease has evolved. He noted, for example, his research on progeria, an extremely rare genetic disease that most notably causes premature aging. He pointed out that rapamycin, an immunosuppressant drug, has been found to minimize some of the effects of progeria and, at the same time, has been shown to extend the lifespan [and possibly lower the disease burden] in test animals, such as mice.

Dr. Felipe Sierra talks with another conference attendee
Dr. Felipe Sierra, director of NIA’s Division of Aging Biology speaking with meeting participant

Following Dr. Collins’ remarks, keynoters Christopher Murray, M.D., D.Phil., Professor of Global Health, University of Washington; Brian Kennedy, Ph.D., President and CEO, Buck Institute for Research on Aging; and Linda Fried, M.D., M.P.H., Dean, Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University, also set the stage for the summit, outlining the global burden of disease, the status of basic research on aging, and the clinical importance of frailty in older people.

Seven scientific sessions addressed major topics of aging and chronic disease—inflammation, adaptation to stress, epigenetics, metabolism, macromolecular damage, proteostasis, and stem cells and regeneration. For instance, researchers discussed how low-grade, persistent inflammation associated with aging differs from the protective immune response and repair mechanism, and contributes to risk for chronic disease.

In another session, panelists covered the research “hot topic” of epigenetics, discussing several mechanisms by which it regulates genes at the chromatin level and how epigenetic changes contribute to aging and chronic disease. In her introduction, Shelley L. Berger, Ph.D., of the Perelman School of Medicine at University of Pennsylvania explained, “The key point in this session is that some of the key genetic regulators that affect dietary restriction [a way of increasing healthy lifespan] are epigenetic regulators.”

At the end of the conference, NIA Director Richard J. Hodes, M.D., said he hoped the 2 days of meetings and interactions would encourage further conversations in the scientific community about commonalities on the mechanisms of aging and their impact on disease. NIH, he said, is committed to fostering this approach to research, and he encouraged the audience “to maintain contact with those of us at NIA and all the institutes that have been collaborating here to make sure we make a go of this. . . . We’re certainly not going to be bashful about following scientific imperative.” (Read more in Dr. Hodes' blog post, "Moving research forward: creativity amid constraints".)

A summary of summit presentations and discussion of geroscience is being developed by participants for journal publication and should be available in the coming months.

Learn More About the Summit

An archived videocast of “Advances in Geroscience” day 1 and day 2 is available on the NIH website. You can also search #AgingSummit to find tweets about the summit from attendees and NIA (@Alzheimers_NIH).

Check out meeting highlights in the following video: