SAN ANTONIO – The gut. The lungs. A pink ‘magic cocktail’ and marmosets.
It’s all part of the aging research currently underway at Texas Biomedical Research Institute where researchers are trying to learn why people age differently and what can be done to give people better outcomes as they get older.
“Even though we’re 99% identical in our DNA — the building blocks of life in our bodies — we’re completely different in the way we respond to this time clock over our lifetime,” said Dr. Larry Schlesinger, President and CEO of Texas Biomed.
Local researchers at the Texas Biomed campus, located at Highway 151 and Loop 410, are studying what happens to human cells during the aging process.
“The longest thinking in the area of aging is that things just stop working. It’s called senescence,” Schlesinger said.
But researchers are discovering there is more to it than that.
Plus. the aging process kicks into gear even sooner than you might expect.
“That clock actually, I’m sorry to say, starts relatively early in life,” Schlesinger said. “A lot of the science is really centered around that third and fourth decade.”
Not an easy pill to swallow, right?
The role of Marmosets
Scientists at the Southwest National Primate Research Center, which is housed at Texas Biomed, are studying marmosets to learn how human bodies change as we get older.
The animals have systems similar to those in humans and live roughly 8 years, which allows researchers to learn about the aging process much faster than using a human subject.
In the marmoset, scientists here are looking at the gut and what’s called the ‘microbiome.’
That’s the combination of naturally occurring bacteria and viruses that live in your gut.
“For the marmosets, we’ve found that their microbiome changes the same as humans change,” said Cory Ross, acting director of the Southwest Primate Research Center. “As we age, we lose that diversity. We lose the access to nutrients from the microbiome. So our questions revolve around what happens if we transfer in a younger microbiome?”
Could transferring a younger microbiome into an older marmoset restore gut health? Reduce inflammation? Even restore cognitive function?
New research has already shown that improving gut health could delay or prevent dementia.
It’s an area of study called the gut-brain axis.
Fecal Microbiome Transplants
“Well, it’s kind of gross,” admits Ross. “But basically, they’ve taken fecal material from healthy individuals that are called ‘super donors.’ They have a very healthy microbiome. They pellet that into pills and they transplant it. Or they do a surgical transplant for individuals that are very ill.”
Such transfers are approved by the FDA.
Studies have shown that transplanting a fecal microbiome from a lean mouse to an obese mouse can help the heavier mouse lose weight while transplanting a microbiome from an obese mouse to a lean one helps the lighter mouse gain weight.
But this isn’t just about what one mouse, or human, versus another chooses to eat.
“Some of it’s diet. It’s how the microbes are responding to diet,” said Ross. “But a lot of it’s our own DNA- what we were seeded with when we were born. That community took root in our gut.”
It’s also what a human body is exposed to.
Antibiotics affect gut bacteria. So does stress.
The ‘magic cocktail’
Texas Biomed scientists are also looking at the lungs for clues about aging in a ground-breaking way by using a cup of pink... shall we say... goop?
(NOTE: that’s strictly my personal description and not a scientific term.)
Texas Biomed researchers invented the substance to mimic the environment inside human lungs.
Getting a sample of an actual human lung isn’t easy and was even more challenging during the pandemic.
“The scope goes down and we can watch a segment of the lung and get cells from there,” Schlesinger said. “It’s expensive. It results in a small number of cells, and we can only do certain studies for that environment.”
They call it a ‘magic cocktail.’
Researchers can isolate cells from a blood sample and then add them to the pink mixture.
A few days later, they have cells that function like those in a human lung.
“The excitement of understanding the cellular basis of aging is that maybe that’s a way to slow the aging process down,” Schlesinger said.
Learning how to age well
An entire industry is built around the practically universal desire to slow down the aging process.
Countless products and supplements are marketed as methods to keep people looking and feeling young.
But largely, science has yet to prove what works.
“You see probiotics on the shelf, you know, ‘eat this yogurt, eat this thing,’ because it’ll make you healthier,” Ross said. “We’re just starting to study what those effects are.”
The aging research at Texas Biomed is not focused on that.
“It’s simply about trying to reduce the chances of frailty coming into our lives earlier,” said Schlesinger.
Nor is the research about keeping people young. Instead, the goal is to help us learn how to age well.
“Not every 80-year-old will run marathons, but it would be great if they were healthy enough to have that option,” said Ross.