Kennedy/Jasper labs awarded $3.7 million to focus on stem cell longevity


Brian Kennedy, PhD Henri Jasper, PhD

The federal government is funding a unique collaboration between the Kennedy and Jasper labs aimed at maintaining the regenerative power of adult stem cells. The five-year, $3.7 million project may also benefit those suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which affects over 24 million Americans.

The work, and the ensuing award, is a prime example of the great things that happen when Buck scientists collaborate with each other. It also helps that there are striking similarities between the cells that line the intestines of the fruit fly and those that line the trachea of mice allowing the research to move seamlessly from invertebrates into mammals.

Faculty Henri Jasper, PhD has already extended lifespan and healthspan in fruit flies by enhancing the regenerative capacity of the adult stem cells that line their mid-gut. Buck President and CEO Brian Kennedy, PhD has performed ground-breaking research on aging in mice, specifically focusing on a nutrient-sensing pathway called mTOR (mechanistic Target of Rapamycin).

Taking advantage of fly genetics
The research will combine the strength of the fly system (animals that are short lived but complex enough to model regenerative activity in vertebrates) with genetic studies in mice to understand the role of mTOR signaling in maintaining the health of adult stem cells in both species.

“We already know that manipulating mTOR increases both lifespan and healthspan in mice,” said Kennedy, who added that some of the mice will be treated with drugs that inhibit mTOR. “This new funding will allow us to explore the specific effects on adult stem cells in specific tissues – it is exactly the type of study that’s needed to move the field forward.”

“Our hypothesis is that inhibiting mTOR activity will shield the adult stem cells from dietary fluctuations,” said Jasper, who explained that the hypothesis is based on previous findings that showed fly stem cells went awry and got lost when TOR activity increased in response to a high-calorie diet. “We are most curious to see what happens in the trachea of treated mice. If we can show an improvement in those adult stem cells it may not be that big a jump to humans, where COPD increases with age.”

COPD increases with age
COPD is an umbrella term used to describe progressive lung diseases including emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and non-reversible asthma. Available treatments ease symptoms, but there are no therapies that rejuvenate damaged lung tissue. While cigarette smoking is the leading cause of COPD, long-term exposure to other irritants – such as air pollution, chemical fumes or dust – may also contribute to the disease.

There is intense interest in mTOR signaling in the aging research community. Drugs that inhibit mTOR have already been approved by the FDA for other indications and are showing great promise in animal models. “Once we understand how these drugs impact specific cells and tissues we’ll be in a position to design clinical trials for humans,” said Kennedy. “This is how we will get treatments into the clinic.”

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