The National Institute on Aging (NIA) today announced the establishment of three Nathan Shock Centers of Excellence in Basic Biology of Aging. The centers -- at the University of Michigan, University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, and University of Washington -- are the first of their kind, designed to stimulate and enhance research into the basic biological processes of aging by developing cutting edge research techniques and innovative, experimental model systems. Ultimately, research at the centers is expected to yield breakthroughs in understanding the course of normal aging and the diseases and conditions that affect older people, such as frailty and cancer.
The centers are approved for 5 years, with the first year of funding for the three centers totaling about $1.2 million. They are named for Nathan W. Shock, Ph.D., the first scientific director of the NIA. Shock was a pioneer in the field of aging research and the developer of the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, which began studying normal human aging over 30 years ago.
Richard L. Sprott, Ph.D., NIA's Associate Director for the Biology of Aging, says the centers are a critical next step in understanding how we age. "We're beginning to get answers to some important biological questions, such as what is the effect of a particular gene,"he says. According to Sprott, "We have the ability to do reductionist research, breaking down an organism to the tiniest pieces of chromosomes at various points in a given process. These centers will take what we have learned and provide cutting edge research on the whole organism as well as on specific biological processes."
The universities selected to inaugurate the Shock Centers program are already leaders in research into the biology of aging and in aging research generally. The centers are set up so that scientists within each university, from a wide variety of disciplines, can use the center's resources in their research. A key component of each center will be the development of transgenic mice and rats, animals in which foreign or altered genes can be inserted to elucidate a particular gene's function.
The principal investigators and a description of their projects follows:
John A. Faulkner, Ph.D., University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. The Michigan group will look at the molecular and cellular mechanisms of the basic biology of aging in four areas -- musculoskeletal frailty, signal transduction (cell-to-cell communication), protein structure and function, and control of gene expression.
A key part of the center's effort will be the maintenance of rats and mice of certain genotypes and the development of new mutant and transgenic rodents for gerontological studies. The group will produce mice of different genotypes to look at aging processes and age-related physiological changes that, specifically, may shed light on extended lifespan, breast cancer, gene activity in late life, and the effects of aging on muscle cells and T-lymphocytes (cells important to the immune system).
Michigan will also specialize in developing the latest in cell imaging technology, providing facilities and equipment for tissue and cellular imagery as well as the necessary expertise for evaluating data. The center will provide advice and help to researchers on digital imaging in particular. (Media Contact: Diane Swanbrow, 313/747-4416).
Arlan G. Richardson, Ph.D., University of Texas Health Science Center, San Antonio. The Texas team's approach is based on the idea that the biological mechanisms leading to cell senescence, the stage at which a cell has stopped dividing permanently, can be identified by changing a whole organism genetically, nutritionally, and pharmacologically. One area the team will explore is caloric restriction.
Genetic manipulations will be accomplished by focusing on the development of transgenic animals in which genes will be "overexpressed," a technique to heighten a particular gene's effects by inserting more copies, or by "knockout" techniques, which remove genes to examine what happens in their absence. For example, the center might be able to "overexpress" certain antioxidant enzymes to examine the role of free radicals in the development of tumors that occur with increasing age. In addition, the Texas group will be developing and maintaining transgenic animals for study by researchers university-wide. A special pathology program to examine tissues, cells, and molecular mechanisms of the transgenic animals as they age will be developed as well. (Media Contact: James Barrett, 210/567-2570)
Peter S. Rabinovitch, M.D., Ph.D., University of Washington, Seattle. In Washington, scientists will focus on getting the latest molecular genetic techniques into the hands of researchers in the biology of aging.
A transgenic rodent program will develop new animal models for studying mechanisms of the aging process, including gene knockouts. Another part of the program will focus on keeping transgenic and knockout animals free of infection and disease so that the normal biological processes of aging can be studied.
A flow cytometry and cell sorting program will allow use of these complex techniques for examining the cell cycle, DNA content, mechanisms of cell death, and characterization of transgenic mouse cells. In addition, a yeast genetics group will offer expertise to investigators wishing to use molecular research tools to detect and analyze the interactions of cellular proteins. (Media Contact: Kay Rodriguez, 201/543-3620).
In addition to specific projects, each group will encourage and train young investigators in the field and fund promising pilot projects to encourage groundbreaking research.
The NIA, part of the National Institutes of Health, leads the Federal effort supporting and conducting basic, clinical, behavioral, and social research on aging.