Research into Biological Aging Takes New Direction
Research into biological aging will need to change direction, from its current focus on the individual parts of the cells to how these parts communicate with each other. “This is critical to our understanding of how aging works and to slowing down age-related illnesses,” says Thomas Nyström, Professor of Microbiology at the Sahlgrenska Academy.
Thomas Nyström and his colleague Daniel Gottschling from Calico, in San Francisco, have recently provided an overall picture of biological aging in research journal Cell, in which they mapped out the way forward for research in this area, against the backdrop of an aging population where Alzheimer’s, cancer, cardiovascular diseases and many other conditions are on the increase.
“The majority of diseases we are aware of are all related to age in one way or another. After all, we are much more susceptible to almost everything when we get older, which is down to many of our cellular functions breaking down,” Thomas Nyström points out.
In the past, research in this area has tended to focus on specific macromolecules in the cells, such as proteins, DNA or lipids, or individual organelles such as the mitochondrion, the so-called “powerhouse” of the cell, or the lysozome, which acts as a recycling center.
Syncing and Covering Up
In order to understand aging and its underlying processes, one must however realize that these organelles with their well demarcated functions in the cell also communicate extensively between themselves, in the form of biochemical interactions aimed at synchronizing activity levels and covering up each other’s defects.
“Often, research aimed at understanding a certain type of cancer or diabetes nowadays is focused on one single type of organelle; however, to understand why these diseases appear with increasing age you have to think about how all the cells function and communicate,” says Thomas Nyström.
“Aging is progressive and irreversible; it’s not possible to slow down the aging process completely. However, if you can influence these compensatory responses, it may be possible to do something about age-related diseases i.e. because we understand what causes them,” he continues.
Slowing Down Diseases
Options for intervening and influencing the processes are what this is about in the long term. The aim is to be able to slow down age-related diseases via the communication that takes place in the cells, which works less effectively with increasing age.
The first step, however, is to increase understanding of what happens and what genes or proteins etc. take part in the communication and the work to compensate for and repair weaknesses.
“Once we have identified these, we will then be able to look into therapeutic ways of improving their function during the aging process,” says Thomas Nyström.
Portrait photo: Cecilia Hedström.