To advance research in the field of geroscience – which studies the relationship between aging and disease – the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine has been awarded a $10.7 million federal grant.
The grant brings national recognition to geroscience research at the OU College of Medicine, the academic partner of OU Medicine. Simply getting older puts people at higher risk for a multitude of diseases, from cancer to Alzheimer’s to cardiovascular problems. Although aging itself isn’t an illness, researchers want to understand how it influences disease in order to delay or prevent the devastating conditions that many people face.
“This grant highlights the significant momentum by researchers studying geroscience,” said Jason Sanders, M.D., MBA, senior vice president and provost of the OU Health Sciences Center and vice chair of OU Medicine. “Research distinguishes an academic health system like OU Medicine because new discoveries will enhance and personalize the care that Oklahomans receive for a number of diseases linked to aging.”
The five-year grant is from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, a component of the National Institutes of Health. It represents a COBRE (Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence) grant, which establishes multidisciplinary research in Oklahoma and enables talented researchers to compete for additional federal awards. A major component of the program is mentoring junior researchers, who contribute to better patient treatment with their projects, while building their careers and attracting additional grant funding that helps to drive Oklahoma’s economic growth.
Geroscience research at the OU College of Medicine has grown significantly in recent years. In 2007, William E. Sonntag, Ph.D., arrived on campus to launch and lead the Reynolds Oklahoma Center on Aging, the research division of the Department of Geriatric Medicine. With support from the Reynolds Foundation, Sonntag began recruiting researchers whose studies were pertinent to aging and disease. His team is now a highly collaborative, interdisciplinary group with expertise in a variety of areas.
“Over the past several years, we have recognized that more than 95 percent of debilitating diseases are associated with age,” said Sonntag, who serves as co-principal investigator on the grant with Robert Anderson, Ph.D. “If we can understand the cellular changes that put cells and tissues at risk, that can go a long way toward understanding the cause of disease. This is a transformational approach to treating and managing disease, and we are a leader in this emerging field.”
Building a solid foundation of basic science research is an important first step toward translating it into treatments for patients. Cerebrovascular problems associated with aging are a major investigative theme for the research group. For example, modest hypertension in young people, while not desirable, doesn’t create immediate pathological changes. In older people, however, hypertension can cause a breakdown of the structure of blood vessels in the brain, potentially leading to stroke or impairments in learning and memory, Sonntag said.
Researchers have already begun building the bridge between laboratory science and patient care through the establishment of the Translational Geroscience Laboratory on campus. The facility allows physicians and scientists to use technology such as functional near-infrared spectroscopy to view blood vessels in the brain, ultrasound to evaluate vascular health, and a high-tech walking mat to measure a person’s gait, which often changes because of an underlying microvascular disease.
By its nature, geroscience research engages with scientists from other disciplines and organizations in Oklahoma, including the VA Medical Center, the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation and the School of Biomedical Engineering on OU’s Norman campus. These collaborations were instrumental in the establishment three years ago of Oklahoma’s first Nathan Shock Center of Excellence in the Basic Biology of Aging, a distinction that came with a $3.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.
The geroscience COBRE award will allow researchers to continue building on that success. Four junior researchers will be mentored toward independent careers by established researchers on campus, while simultaneously conducting research that contributes to the knowledge base of geroscience. Three of the junior researchers are from the College of Medicine and one is from the College of Pharmacy, and their strength is in the diversity of their investigations.
“The geroscience research team serves as an excellent example of the power of collaboration in the search for new answers in health care,” said James Tomasek, Ph.D., vice president for research at the OU Health Sciences Center. “The COBRE grant award is exciting because it will not only increase the amount of research we conduct, but it supports the training of the next generation of researchers and physician-scientists in Oklahoma.”