Aging research has become “hot science” according to Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), in his keynote speech to the Annual Scientific Meeting of the Gerontological Society of America this week in Washington, D.C.
As the number of people older than 65 as a proportion of the world population increases, understanding the aging process
and addressing age-related diseases
becomes ever more imperative, Collins said.
Much has been accomplished already: cancer death rates are falling, heart disease
is declining and AIDS has become a treatable disease. But there is much more to be done to address the health problems and conditions that come with age, as well as the nature of aging itself, he added.
(MORE: A Growing Nation of Cancer Survivors)
Turning Science into Cures
Among the breakthroughs Collins sees on the research horizon:
1. Understanding how our brains record and retrieve memories and defining that most elusive of brain qualities: consciousness. Collins posed the conundrum: “Are our brains complicated enough to understand our brains?”
To explore these questions, the NIH, the National Science Foundation, the Food and Drug Administration and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (the people who brought us the Internet) are collaborating on a project called The BRAIN Initiative
, a 12-year, $4.5 billion effort to map and analyze the human brain.
2. Learning more about the nature of disease by going deeper into the human genome. As the former head of the international Human Genome Project which concluded in 2003, this topic is near and dear to Collins' heart. But sequencing the three billion base pairs that make up the complete set of DNA in the human body is just a start he said. We now need people to read the map to understand specific diseases and develop cures.
Further research in this area, specifically understanding how DNA works, can help scientists better understand cancer and how cells “go awry, including what happens in the course of aging,” said Collins.
NIH-funded research recently found common mutated genes occurring across 12 cancer types. This may change the way we define and think about cancers, Collins said, so we view them in terms of the type of mutation rather than the organ in which the cancer occurs. A new understanding of how cancer works could lead to new ways to stop it, he added.
Genetic research is also aiding the study of Alzheimer's. While it took 13 years to map the first human genome, researchers have since mapped the genomes of 578 people with Alzheimer's. And the cost is going down: from $400 million for the first one to less than $5,000 per subject for current mapping, Collins said.
(MORE: Inside the Mind of Alzheimer's )
3. Getting drugs to market faster. Currently it takes more than 14 years to take a drug from discovery to FDA approval, according to Collins. Much of that time is spent testing drugs on animals, and only 1 percent of proposed drugs make it through the process.
Collins is excited about the prospect of using human "tissue chips,” or cells arrayed in a lab, to test toxicity in humans without having to test drugs on people with all the related risks and complications. The NIH is also looking at other ways to identify and remove bottlenecks in the drug development process.
4. Using new technologies to prevent common age-related accidents. Chief among these are falls, which led more than 2.4 million Americans to seek emergency treatment in 2012 and resulted in more than 24,000 deaths.
As an example of these technologies, Collins showed a digital wristband
which can be used to monitor balance and identify those at risk for falls before they have an accident. He also pointed to the promise of big data which is transforming business, saying we need to figure out how to "convert all of this data into knowledge."
(MORE: The Broken Hip: How to Prevent Falls)
No Shortage of Work
Scientists have ample opportunity for aging research topics far into the future. As Collins told his fellow scientists at the conference: "There are more than 5,400 diseases where we know the molecular basis and fewer than 500 with [a] therapy." The hope that further research using new tools and technologies, combined with collaboration between government and private companies, will produce therapies and cures for the remaining 4,000+ diseases.
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