Research on aging is maturing at the U

The recently formed Institute of Biology of Aging and Metabolism is recruiting new members.

by Katie Salai

A team of researchers is working to gain a foothold at the University of Minnesota by recruiting new faculty members to assist in their research on the biology of aging.

Funded by a state initiative for biomedical research, the Institute on the Biology of Aging and Metabolism within the University’s Medical School is not looking to expand lifespans but to make them healthier. The institute aims to recruit researchers from various disciplines to improve the experience of aging.

“Because of baby boomers, 10,000 people are going to turn 65 every day for the next 15 years and we’re just, as a society, not prepared to deal with that,” said Laura Niedernhofer, director of iBAM. “We have been at the forefront of thinking about how to deal with it in terms of planning.” 

Started last year, iBAM is one of four Medical Discovery Teams in the Medical School that address critical health issues in the state, such as addiction, aging, rural health and brain science. Niedernhofer and Associate Director Paul Robbins are leading an effort to develop a class of drugs to target senescent cells.

Senescent cells are damaged cells that no longer multiply. When younger, a person’s immune system eliminates these cells — but as they age, senescent cells build up in the body.

“It turns out the cells that accumulate in your body as you age that aren’t cancerous are actually similar to cancer cells,” said Robbins. “Some of the drugs that are used to clear cancer cells as they grow actually can [also] kill the damaged cells.”

Drugs identified by the team in recent years are already in use at the Mayo Clinic for treating age-related conditions. The class of drugs used includes those that have been repurposed from treating cancer.

“Our experience is in testing drugs that target fundamental aging processes,” Niedernhofer said. “Paul has developed a very good cell-based screening for drugs, and I developed a strain of mice that age six times faster than normal mice so we can test drugs in a matter of months as opposed to years.”

Fernando Santiago, a postdoctoral researcher in iBAM, is analyzing how to use the parts of a cell shed by tumors and stem cells to better deliver drugs into a patient’s body.

“What we’re looking for, from a therapeutic standpoint, are drugs and natural products that will either specifically eliminate senescent cells from the body or inhibit their … negative function,” Santiago said. 

To expand its research, iBAM is looking to recruit six to eight new faculty members over the course of the next year. They hope to discover new areas to target besides senescent cells. Niedernhofer said aging affects everything: the eyes, immune system, heart and brain. 

“The [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] has never considered aging a disease. … They are now at least more accepting of clinical trials focused on aging,” said Robbins. “They’re realizing the root cause of most diseases that they are approving drugs for, the root cause is aging itself.”