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Geroscience needs aging biology research

Felipe Sierra
Felipe SIERRA,
Division Director,
Division of Aging Biology (DAB)
.

Geroscience—a field that looks at the relationship between aging and disease—has gained lots of traction within the scientific community. I think this is a good thing. Anybody who heard me talk recently would be excused if they were to think that this is now the primary focus of NIA’s Division of Aging Biology… Well, not so!

The centerpiece of work funded by the Division of Aging Biology remains basic research into the biological roots of aging. The application of this research to human health and disease is a welcome addition—“icing on the cake,” if you will.

Others may be under the impression that geroscience and biology of aging are synonymous. Again, not so! Geroscience is a proud offshoot of the work done in basic aging biology during the last couple of decades. Much of the research into aging processes in animal models has progressed to the point where translation to research in areas of human health—by many of the NIH institutes—may be possible.

Geroscience is an outgrowth of basic biology

The concept of geroscience formed out of the realization that research funded by the Division of Aging Biology identified numerous ways to manipulate lifespan (by dietary, genetic and pharmacological means). Those manipulations usually led to a partial improvement in healthspan, with some caveats. So the logic went: if we can do it in yeast, worms, flies and mice, then we should be able to do it in humans. Sounds good, right? With that groundwork, why not shift the focus of Division of Aging Biology research to translation? That’s really not such a good idea because geroscience is fueled by continuing research into the basic biology of aging.

No geroscience without aging biology research

I have partially led the charge for the research community to focus on geroscience. I’m interested to see if some of Division of Aging Biology findings in animal models hold true for humans. Yet, geroscience cannot come at the expense of research on basic biology. Theirs is a symbiotic relationship. Geroscience needs that steady pipeline of scientific advances from aging biology research in order to survive. That’s one reason it’s imperative that NIA and the Division of Aging Biology continue to vigorously support research unravelling the basic underpinnings of the aging process. Otherwise, geroscience has no future!

Basic biology of aging and geroscience are not in competition

Too often we hear at study sections the damning of a project because “it is not translatable,” or “it has no relevance to human aging.” Such sentiments make me cringe. Most of the basic understanding of aging came from this type of research. Pharyngeal pumping in C. elegans, anyone? Or, how about stress resistance in yeast? Dismissing a line of research simply because it is not immediately known to be directly relevant to human health is short-sighted and limiting for the future of aging research.

For its part, the Division of Aging Biology remains fully committed to funding meritorious proposals on the basic underpinnings of aging, irrespective of whether an application to humans can be predicted by the applicant or the reviewers. Recent examples include this funding opportunity on epigenetics, this funding opportunity on aging and neuromuscular junctions, and this funding opportunity on the cytoskeleton in cellular aging.

Geroscience is a unique interdisciplinary opportunity to understand how biological mechanisms of aging underlie disease and disability. My Division is at the lead of this movement, and fully engaged; two members of my Division participate in activities of the trans-NIH GeroScience Interest Group, as do two representatives from other NIA Divisions, alongside researchers from 19 other institutes at NIH. We do not suggest that Division of Aging Biology-funded investigators replace their research foci with geroscience. As I’ve explained, geroscience would cease to exist without basic biology research; geroscience without basic biology would be like bread without yeast.

Do you have other questions about the Division of Aging Biology’s work on geroscience and basic biology? Get in touch with me by commenting below.

 

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