by Buck Institute

30 years and ongoing: Recap of the 30 years of aging research symposium

By Irene Park, Buck Science Writer

In 1988, Tom Johnson and David Friedman published a monumental paper in Genetics demonstrating that mutating one gene (age-1) in the worm, C. elegans, extended the worms’ lifespan by 40%. This paper showed for the first time that longevity can be affected by a single gene, and it marked the beginning of modern aging research.

Since then, the aging research field has flourished. Researchers have identified many more genes that influence organisms’ longevity and initiated a paradigm shift in our understanding that aging is the common denominator for a myriad of chronic illnesses, such as dementia, cardiovascular disease, and certain cancers. In the last ten years, researchers have discovered multiple ways to increase lifespan and healthspan in mice and incentivize people to change their lifestyle and behaviors to improve their health.

Last Monday, roughly 350 people gathered at the Buck to attend the “Live Better Longer: A Celebration of 30 Years of Research on Aging” symposium. The symposium provided a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hear from the early aging research pioneers, discuss the innovations that make this an exciting time to be in the aging research field, appreciate the cutting-edge technology to push the research forward, and explore the importance of aging research beyond the laboratory. 

The first session featured four scientists who are considered the early pioneers of aging biology: Tom Johnson, Cynthia Kenyon, Leonard Guarente, and Gary Ruvkun. The panelists each described how in the beginning, it was a struggle to get others interested in aging research.  At times, they even faced criticism from their colleagues. Guarente reminisced that in his earlier days, his colleagues would scoff at the results of his work, saying, “Just what we need — long-lived worms!” Only now do we really recognize the impact of these seminal studies.

Patrick Phillips, a faculty member at Oregon University and attendee at the event, described that seeing and hearing from the four pioneering scientists in a single session was “an opportunity unlikely to arise again.”

“It is rare that one can observe an entirely new field of science appear right before your eyes, which is exactly what happened when researchers first discovered genes that made organisms live longer rather than shorter,” Phillips wrote. “The chance to see the founding members of this field all on one stage and to hear them talk about their efforts to overcome skepticism to fulfill their vision was a treat not to be missed.”

The second group of panelists — Judy Campisi, Jan Vijg, Steven Austad, and Luigi Ferrucci — discussed the advances of the last few years, which have been an inflection point for aging research with many new and exciting developments. The panelists agreed that they finally have the technology to test the ideas that originated 30 years ago, allowing researchers to study the role of the microbiome in aging, use senolytic drugs to selectively kill senescent cells, and develop new biomarkers to diagnose and track the aging process in the lab and the clinic.

There have been conceptual shifts as well. Buck faculty member Judy Campisi mentioned how scientists now recognize that the brain does not operate independently from the rest of the body. Understanding aging and age-associated diseases will require a systems-level approach which considers the interconnections of our body’s tissues as we age.  

Buck postdoctoral researcher Tugsan Tezil said this panel was very useful for him as an early career scientist because he got to hear different perspectives from the aging research leaders.

The third session, featuring Stephen Quake, Deepak Srivastava, and Stanley Qi, delved into some of the cutting-edge technologies that are pushing aging research and interventions forward, including single-cell analyses, cell fate manipulation, and CRISPR. These technologies provide tools for researchers to study the mechanisms of aging on a deeper level, providing a more comprehensive view of aging biology.

The meeting wrapped up with a discussion session with Ned David, Jim Mellon, Victor Dzau, and Joan Mannick (moderated by KQED’s Michael Krasny), about how aging research will shape future healthcare. In particular, the panelists anticipated that healthspan-extending interventions will save money in the long run because they will prevent and manage a multitude of costly age-associated diseases. David specifically pointed out that in the United States, more money is spent on kidney dialysis every year than the entire annual budget of the National Institutes of Health.  

Buck postdoctoral researcher Elie Maksoud said he was inspired by David’s tenacity and commitment.

“This was the first time I heard Ned give a talk,” Maksoud said. “I found him very driven and determined to translate the findings from none other than Judy Campisi into treatments to improve the quality and duration of life.”

Additionally, Mellon emphasized the rapid growth of the aging market, which he said resembles the growth trajectory of the tech industry in the early 1990s. Mellon added that the market still has plenty of room to grow.

“The current aging market is $140 billion — imagine how large that will be when the products actually work,” Mellon said.

The panelists also highlighted that future endeavors will require an interdisciplinary, multi-pronged effort from researchers, government, and the biotech and healthcare insurance industries. While the current developments are exciting, thoughtful and continuing conversations are necessary to harness and regulate the scientific findings in light of the recent CRISPR controversy.

Likewise, Kevin Lee, the senior scientific and programmatic advisor at the Glenn Foundation for Medical Research who attended the event, expressed that it will be important to “communicate the promise, potential, and realistic objectives of aging research” as the field creates new opportunities to benefit human health and improve healthcare.

“I feel we are best served by balancing hype, hope, promise, and opportunity in the messages we communicate about aging research,” Lee said.

Science is showing that while chronological aging is inevitable, biological aging is malleable. There's a part of it that you can fight, and we are getting closer and closer to winning that fight.

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