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Vol. LXVI, No. 8
April 11, 2014

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Trash Talk
Cuervo Explains How Our Cells Discard, Recycle Matter

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Dr. Ana Maria Cuervo
Dr. Ana Maria Cuervo
As we learn more about the inner workings of cells, we’re uncovering clues that may help us delay the effects of aging and disease. It all begins with lysosomes—the cannibals of the cellular world.

Within each cell, a lysosome is a sac of enzymes that digests anything in it. The lysosome devours proteins, lipids, even pathogens that enter from outside the cell, as well as components within the cell. The nutrients get broken down and recycled while the unusable waste gets destroyed. This process—the breakdown, recycling and disposing of cellular components—is known as autophagy.


Autophagy helps maintain cellular energy balance, contributes to immune health and serves a quality control function inside the cells by eliminating damaged or abnormal components. As we age, the activity of these pathways tends to decrease. Consequently, certain neurodegenerative diseases associated with aging may in fact be due to problems with these pathways.

Dr. Ana Maria Cuervo, a world-renowned expert on autophagy, and her lab team are studying these lysosomal pathways, particularly how to maintain their functionality and repair them. Professor and co-director of the Institute of Aging Research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, she delivered the annual NIH Director’s Margaret Pittman Lecture on Mar. 19, titled, “Did You Remember to Take Out the Trash? Your Cells Sure Did!”
Cuervo, co-director of the Institute of Aging Research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, delivers the annual Pittman Lecture.

Cuervo, co-director of the Institute of Aging Research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, delivers the annual Pittman Lecture.

Photos: Ernie Branson

“If you have cells in which autophagy is not working properly, they’re going to be energetically compromised, they may not respond so well to nutritional stresses. They’re also going to be more vulnerable to the attack of pathogens,” said Cuervo. “They will have problems with their ability to remove all this garbage, all the abnormal components…[This in turn leads to] progressive loss of cell function, which is characteristic of aging and disease and in many cases can lead to cell death.”

Cuervo’s lab is working with neuroscientists to study the proteins that accumulate in patients with neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s. She said that disease often starts when these proteins become damaged and cannot penetrate the lysosome’s membrane.

“To make it all worse, you’re getting old and aging is interfering with the activity of these pathways,” she said. “If we can slow down the aging of these lysosomal pathways, we might be able to maintain or sustain ability or activity enough to eliminate part of these pathogenic proteins and slow down the disease.”

Autophagy can prevent cells from starving, as proteins and other nutrients entering the lysosome are split and can be used to produce energy. Cuervo said preserving autophagic activity helps lower intracellular accumulation of damaged proteins while improving organ function.

Advances in the study of impaired autophagy may help us slow down the aging process and delay the onset, or reduce the severity, of certain diseases. This area of research may also hold the key to developing novel therapies to treat a wide range of age-related disorders.

The lecture was held in tribute to the late Dr. Margaret Pittman, NIH’s first female lab chief. She joined the NIH staff in 1936 and made significant contributions to microbiology and vaccine development. Pittman was chief of the Laboratory of Bacterial Products, Division of Biologics Standards, from 1957 to 1971.

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