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BIG research offers insight into aging -- 2 scientists awarded $200,000 prize

NEW YORK, August 12, 2009 -- Rochelle Buffenstein, PhD, professor, University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio and Luigi Fontana, MD, PhD, research associate professor, Washington University in St. Louis, were selected as recipients of the Breakthroughs in Gerontology (BIG) Award sponsored by the Glenn Foundation for Medical Research and the American Federation for Aging Research (AFAR). Established in 2005, the BIG Award provides $200,000 grants for high risk, original research that offers significant promise of yielding transforming discoveries in the fundamental biology of aging.

Dr. Buffenstein will investigate how regulation by the Nrf2 signaling pathwaya major detoxification pathwayprotects long-lived species such as the naked mole rat from cellular stress that contributes to age-related diseases. The naked mole rat is the longest-lived rodent known, living 8.6 times longer than similar-sized mice, and maintains cancer-free, good health for more than 85% of its 30-year lifespan. Its tissues show pronounced cellular resistance to most noxious agents. In contrast, most short-lived species, rather than fending off threats to their tissues, direct many of their resources into rapid growth and early reproduction and readily succumb to age-related diseases such as cancer. Understanding the mechanisms involved in this pathway may provide pivotal insights into aging.

Dr. Fontana seeks to better understand caloric restriction (CR), which has been shown to slow aging in certain laboratory animals. The precise molecular mechanisms responsible for this effect are not known, but likely involve the regulation of gene function. Recent findings in individuals on long-term CR with adequate nutrition observed protection against diabetes, hypertension, inflammation, clogged arteries and deterioration of heart function with aging. This is consistent with long-term effects of CR in monkeys and rodents. However, little is known about the effects of long-term CR in humans on gene function modifications, which may be involved in mediating some of the longevity results. Dr. Fontana will study whether long-term CR with adequate protein and micronutrients intake results in some of the same changes in gene function that have been shown in calorically restricted mice and monkeys. By elucidating the molecular mechanisms underlying the effects of CR in humans, Dr. Fontana's research may identify potential biomarkers of aging and longevity that could assist clinicians in predicting many different age-associated diseases in humans.

"We created the BIG award to encourage scientists to engage in bolder research pursuits, those that are higher-risk but which offer the potential for greater reward in our understanding of basic mechanisms that affect aging and age-related diseases," said Mark R. Collins, president of the Glenn Foundation for Medical Research. "Our hope is that these awards will lead to new insights into the molecular factors that coordinate aging in multiple cells and tissues," he added.

"The BIG program is a novel approach to funding science that rewards innovative thinking, which may ultimately increase the odds that we will all live healthier for a much longer period of time," said Stephanie Lederman, executive director, American Federation for Aging Research.


Contact: Stacey Harris
American Federation for Aging Research

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