SAN ANTONIO (Oct. 5, 2009) — Scientists at the Barshop Institute for Longevity and Aging Studies, a research facility of The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, will begin testing the therapeutic qualities of rapamycin on age-related diseases and health span, thanks to a $5.2 million grant awarded by the National Institute on Aging (NIA).
The new grant is through the Grand Opportunities (GO) program of the National Institutes of Health resulting from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009.
Rapamycin is an antibiotic and immunosuppressant approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It is in clinical trials for the treatment of cancer. Health span refers to how long a person or animal is able to maintain good health during the life span.
A first in mice
Breakthrough aging studies carried out at the Barshop Institute showed that rapamycin increases the life span of mice by 28 percent to 38 percent. Because of study challenges, the mice were not started on the antibiotic until the age of 20 months — equivalent to age 60 in humans — which made the results all the more intriguing.
These results, independently verified at two other centers participating in the NIA Interventions Testing Program, were reported in July in the journal Nature. The other centers are Jackson Laboratory and the University of Michigan.
Scientists who study aging processes believe these findings are especially significant because they are the first to rigorously show that a pharmacological manipulation can reproducibly increase the life span of mice. Until now, caloric restriction and gene manipulations were the only two verifiable approaches to extend life in mice.
One crucial question for investigators, however, is whether long-term rapamycin treatment improves health span as well as life span. “This question must be addressed because of rapamycin’s potential negative effects on the immune system,” said Arlan Richardson, Ph.D., professor of cellular and structural biology, director of the Barshop Institute and the principal investigator on this newly awarded project. He is also a senior research career scientist with the South Texas Veterans Health Care System and occupies the Methodist Hospital Foundation Chair in Aging Studies and Research.
Weighing the benefits and risks
To better understand the broader physiological effects of rapamycin, Dr. Richardson is leading a team of 21 scientists who will investigate the anti-aging effectiveness of rapamycin on various biological systems in aging mice. Each researcher on the team is an expert in the specific system selected for study.
Some of the vital questions this study is designed to answer include:
• Does rapamycin delay or reduce age-related diseases such as cancer, neurodegeneration, atherosclerosis and nephropathy?
• Do mice given rapamycin maintain a longer health span by preserving their sensitivity to infectious agents, healthy autoimmunity and biological functions?
• Does rapamycin improve the biological function of the cellular and molecular pathways that influence health, such as autophagy (a process by which cells maintain efficient operations) and inflammation?
“Answering these questions is essential to aging research because our primary goal in the discovery of anti-aging treatments and therapies is to extend healthy life span by warding off the devastating diseases of aging, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, cancer and cardiovascular diseases, and blindness and deafness, ” Dr. Richardson said.
The NIH Grand Opportunities grants program supports large-scale research projects that accelerate critical breakthroughs, early and applied research on cutting-edge technologies, and new approaches to improve the synergy and interactions among multi- and interdisciplinary research teams.
The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio is the leading research institution in South Texas and one of the major health sciences universities in the world. With an operating budget of $668 million, the Health Science Center is the chief catalyst for the $16.3 billion biosciences and health care sector in San Antonio’s economy. The Health Science Center has had an estimated $36 billion impact on the region since inception and has expanded to six campuses in San Antonio, Laredo, Harlingen and Edinburg. More than 25,600 graduates (physicians, dentists, nurses, scientists and other health professionals) serve in their fields, including many in Texas. Health Science Center faculty are international leaders in cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, aging, stroke prevention, kidney disease, orthopaedics, research imaging, transplant surgery, psychiatry and clinical neurosciences, pain management, genetics, nursing, dentistry and many other fields. For more information, visit www.uthscsa.edu.