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Tiny Worm Sparks Interest in 'New Biology of Aging'

By Doug Dollemore

Photos by Tom Wynn

A worm barely the size of a comma printed on this page is beginning to provide scientists with big clues to the underlying mechanisms involved in aging, according to Dr. Gordon Lithgow, who delivered the 13th annual NIA Nathan Shock Memorial Lecture in Baltimore recently. Further investigation could lead to interventions that might forestall or alleviate age-related disease in humans.

In his lecture, "The New Biology of Aging — Worms, Flies, and Age-Related Disease," Lithgow said experiments involving nematodes, fruitflies and other simple animals suggest that aging and age-related disease have similar impact on many biological processes including the production of insulin, antioxidants and heat shock proteins.

"The new biology of aging is the realization that the mechanisms that determine how long simple animals live may be very similar to the mechanisms that determine how long we live," said Lithgow, an associate professor at the Buck Institute for Age Research in Novato, Calif. "Beyond that, the new biology of aging strongly suggests we can learn something from these simple animals that will be of value in trying to explain age-related disease."

Dr. George Roth (l), senior guest scientist at the National Institute on Aging, presents Dr. Gordon Lithgow with a plaque honoring his contributions to the study of aging.

Caenorhabditis elegans, a microscopic nematode worm, is an excellent model of aging because about 40 percent of the worm genome is structurally similar to the human genome, and two-thirds of the genes associated with diseases in the worm are also found in people, Lithgow said. In his laboratory, he uses the worms to study the genetic and molecular factors that determine age rates. Under normal conditions, C. elegans has about a 20-day lifespan, but Lithgow and his colleagues have discovered genetic varieties with greatly extended life spans. By studying these genetic mutants, they have been able to discover a major longevity factor and are just beginning to understand what limits lifespan in these simple animals.

Much of his research suggests a strong relationship between stress and aging. Researchers working with Lithgow have made numerous key discoveries in this area and have established that the way in which an animal responds to stress is an important determinant of its lifespan. Recently, his laboratory has begun to uncover the ways in which different types of cells affect each other to determine length of life.

"It is essential that we begin to understand the basic biology of what makes us age if we are rationally to intervene in age-related disease," Lithgow said. "With complex biological problems such as aging, it is best to try to find answers in simple biological systems, and that's why we study the microscopic roundworm C. elegans. When we have solved aging in the worm, we will be a long way toward understanding aging in ourselves."

Drs. Leticia Rangel (l) and TracyAnn Perry (r) of NIA's Gerontology Research Center in Baltimore receive Nathan Shock Trainee Awards from Roth.

Prior to Lithgow's lecture, four NIA investigators received Nathan Shock Trainee Awards: Dr. Leticia Rangel, Laboratory of Cellular and Molecular Biology; Dr. TracyAnn Perry, Laboratory of Neurosciences; Dr. Thomas O'Farrell, Laboratory of Immunology; Dr. Weizhong Zhu, Laboratory of Cardiovascular Science. Each received a $500 travel award and a plaque. The annual research competition is sponsored by the Nathan W. Shock and Margaret T. Shock Aging Research Foundation. Dr. Nathan Shock, who died in 1989, was the first NIA scientific director and is considered by some to be the father of gerontology.

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