As part of normal aging, people build up inflammation in their bodies – not the acute kind that eliminates an infection, but a mild, persistent inflammation that creates a higher risk for age-related diseases like cancer, Type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s.
A researcher at the Stephenson Cancer Center at OU Medicine, Deepa Sathyaseelan, Ph.D., recently received a $1.6 million grant to further her investigations into the role of inflammation in both aging and age-related diseases like cancer. The grant is from the National Institute on Aging, a component of the National Institutes of Health.
Sathyaseelan is focusing her research on necroptosis, a cell signaling pathway that causes inflammation. In previous studies, she discovered that with an increase in age comes an increase in necroptosis. Her hypothesis is that necroptosis leads to increased inflammation with age.
With her new grant, she will try to block necroptosis to see whether it will reduce inflammation and whether that will have an effect on aging and age-related diseases. Her research is notable because it has major implications for both aging and cancer.
“Aging and cancer are interrelated – you cannot separate them because aging is the biggest risk factor for most cancers,” she said. “Rather than targeting individual diseases, if we can learn how to positively affect or slow down aging, we may be able to have an overall preventive effect on diseases.”
The beauty of Sathyaseelan’s study is that she may have some new drugs to test. Necroptosis also plays a major role in neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis, and several drugs designed to treat those conditions are in clinical trials. If found to be successful, those drugs may also be effective for her studies, she said.
Sathyaseelan also made an unplanned discovery that is particularly relevant to hepatocellular carcinoma, a type of liver cancer that is an example of an inflammation-related cancer. When she blocked necroptosis in her research model of hepatocellular carcinoma, the level of inflammation decreased.
“That was a very exciting finding,” she said. “It’s a starting point for me to look more into the details of the role of necroptosis and inflammation in liver cancer.”
Liver cancer is especially concerning in the United States, where it has risen dramatically since the late 1970s. Even though the major risk factor for liver cancer is chronic infection with hepatitis B and C, obesity and fatty liver disease are the likely causes behind the rise of liver cancer, Sathyaseelan said. And, as with other cancers, aging itself is a factor. By 2030, liver cancer is expected to be the third-leading type of cancer in the United States, she said.