A new collaborative NIH initiative on cellular senescence
Over the past several decades, there is no doubt that we have advanced enormously in our understanding of the basic mechanisms underlying aging. But if we scrutinize how much of this information has translated into interventions to prevent or delay aging and age-related diseases, the truth is, we’re not yet where we want to be.
The promise of cellular senescence
However, many scientists are optimistic that cellular senescence — the process in which cells lose normal function, including the ability to divide and replicate, but remain alive and acquire newly emerging functions — could be a big step forward. Senescence is being studied as a possible contributing factor to many age-related conditions, including heart disease, arthritis, and Alzheimer’s disease, and has been linked to obesity and depression. Encouragingly, many studies in the laboratory and in early-stage clinical trials have shown promise, indicating that manipulation of senescent cells and/or their associated secretory factors may be new avenues for treatment.
Questions remain, though, about the relationship between cellular senescence and health. We still don’t fully understand the drivers of benign cellular senescence, the possible unintended consequences of eliminating it, or the broad variations in senescence biomarkers. We are also exploring whether it would be most effective to eliminate senescent cells via senolytic drugs or to reduce their impact with so-called “senomorphic” drugs that weaken but don’t destroy them.
NIH collaboration is key!
So, what is NIH doing to advance research into these potential interventions for human health? Three new funding opportunities — budgeted for $191 million over 5 years through an NIH Common Fund initiative co-coordinated by NIA and the National Cancer Institute — are designed to help researchers generate a systematic and comprehensive classification of senescence at the cell, organ, and tissue levels. The initial goal is to standardize the identification and functional characterization of cell senescence in human health, disease, and lifespan.
The initiative will coalesce around a data coordination center as the hub, with tissue mapping centers along the spokes, and satellite site development of new tools and technologies for this exciting field. The overall aim is to deliver a primary atlas of cellular senescence phenotypes in human tissues and a parallel secondary atlas in animal models to assist with validation — all under diverse physiological and developmental conditions.
We are thrilled about this “big data” venture, which is intended to benefit the entire scientific community. The knowledge generated will inform clinical trials aimed at improving health and quality of life for all of us. Post your comments or questions about this exciting new resource below!