April 23, 2004

Student forum addresses the secrets of aging

Featured Image

From left, Richard J. Hodes, M.D., Gordon J. Lithgow, Ph.D., and Arlan G. Richardson, Ph.D., were the speakers at this year's Joel G. Hardman Student-Invited Pharmacology Forum. Photo by Mary Donaldson

Student forum addresses the secrets of aging

Most people have heard the adage “with age, comes wisdom.”

However, it was the current wisdom about the process of aging that was the focus of the 13th Annual Joel G. Hardman Student-Invited Pharmacology Forum held April 15.

Topics discussed ranged from the effects of stress and genetics on aging to how calorie restriction might extend life span and "health span,” which are the healthy years of life.

Richard Hodes, M.D., director of the National Institute on Aging at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., began the presentations, giving the audience an overview of aging research.

According to Hodes, the size of the population over 60 years old is projected to increase drastically by 2050. However, this increase also means a parallel increase in age-related disabilities and diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes, raising concerns that increasing life span might lead to a trade-off in quality of life.

Determining the mechanisms of aging and age-related disease is important, said Hodes, “The earlier one can identify the ongoing process of pathogenesis and intervene, the more effective that prevention is likely to be.”

Although basic research in the area of aging has provided many leads, including dozens of genes involved in aging, he cautioned that we are still a long way from clinical applications of this knowledge in extending the life span of humans.

People often jokingly blame our gray hair and wrinkles on a stressful job or a difficult spouse. But that blame is perhaps not too far off the mark, according to the second forum speaker.

Gordon Lithgow, Ph.D., associate professor at the Buck Institute in Navato, Calif., presented his research on stress and aging in the microscopic worm, C. elegans.

“Complex problems can be solved with simple systems,” said Lithgow of his choice of this worm to study genetic and molecular factors that influence aging.

In this worm, Lithgow and colleagues have found genetic factors — many related to the animal’s stress responses — that caused the worms to live well beyond their usual 20-day life span.

Lithgow and colleagues are also involved in the search for life-extending drugs. They discovered that drugs that counter certain types of stress, including heat stress, extend the life of the average C. elegans.

“If you can make an animal resistant to stress, it’s going to be long-lived,” Lithgow said.

The final speaker, Arlan Richardson, Ph.D., director of the Barshop Center for Longevity and Aging Studies at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, wrapped up the session by discussing his efforts to uncover the basic mechanisms of aging using genetically engineered mice.

Richardson’s lab mice have only half the amount of a gene that protects cells from free radicals—toxic molecules that attack cellular proteins, DNA and lipids (fats).

Richardson found that these mice had increased amounts of free radical-associated damage, but, surprisingly, did not live any longer than the normal animals. However, the mice did appear to have more tumors in old age, indicating that they may be less healthy.

Another area of interest for Richardson is the anti-aging effects of low-calorie diets. According to Richardson, mice fed a low-calorie diet “live longer, and age slower.” The calorie-restricted mice lived about eight months longer than normally fed mice.

To a human, “this would be like adding 20 to 30 years to your life span,” Richardson said.

Not only did they live longer, the mice appeared healthier in old age. These mice were more active than normally fed mice and had shinier coats. Richardson commented that, in addition to a longer life span, they seem to have a longer “health span” as well.

This was the 13th installment of the annual student-organized forum honoring Joel G. Hardman, Ph.D., professor of Pharmacology, Emeritus and chair of the department of Pharmacology from 1975 to 1990. Hardman also served as associate vice chancellor for Health Affairs until his retirement in 1997.

Joey Barnett, Ph.D., director of Graduate Studies in the department of Pharmacology said, “This symposium is named in his honor because not only was he an exceptional scientist, Joel had a strong and enduring commitment to graduate education. During his leadership, the graduate program here in pharmacology rose to national prominence.”

Prior to the presentations, Vsevolod Gurevich, Ph.D., associate professor of Pharmacology, was awarded the 2004 Teaching Award in Pharmacology.

Graduate students Will Oldham and Rebecca Jungbauer presented the award, describing Gurevich as “the individual that made the greatest positive contribution to our training during the last year.”

The forum concluded with a special presentation, in the spirit of the Academy Awards, honoring the career of Lee Limbird, Ph.D., chair of the department of Pharmacology and associate vice chancellor for Research. Limbird, who is retiring after 25 years at Vanderbilt, swept all categories, including an award for “Best Sound” for her explanation of receptor diversity in her famous Philadelphia accent: “a receptah is a receptah.”

The student organizers of this year’s forum were Kelie Reece, Jamie McConnell and Regina Myers.