Thursday, November 29, 2007

Nature News Feature on the Buck Institute

I always find it encouraging when I see mainstream science journals giving anti-aging research its due. And this is the case again in the latest issue of Nature. The News Feature "Age Research: A New Angle on 'Old'" highlights the research being conducted at the Buck Institute. The stated mission of the Buck Institute, from their webpage, is to increase our healthspan, the healthy years of life. Such an aspiration is indeed a noble one. Here is some more info from their mission statement:

Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, cancer, stroke, and arthritis have one thing in common: age. By focusing on the connection between aging and disease, scientists at the Buck Institute for Age Research are striving to develop diagnostic tests and treatments that will prevent or delay these conditions. Our goal is to increase people's healthspan - the healthy years of life - so that growing older no longer means growing ill.

The Buck Institute - the first independent research facility in the country focused solely on aging and age-related disease - is taking a prominent role in shaping the future of medicine. Its status as a freestanding nonprofit research center allows scientists to initiate new studies quickly and respond to new opportunities in biomedical research, such as stem cell research and regenerative medicine. Our interdisciplinary research approach, dynamic physical design, and support services provide an ideal environment for biomedical inquiry.

The Buck Institute is also a place for education, helping to train the next generation of researchers in aging, from postdoctoral fellows to high school students. Institute symposia feature international experts and draw participants from all over the world. The Institute also educates the general public about new discoveries and ways to age healthfully.

The Institue sounds like a very exciting place, and it's mission is a very important one. For tackling aging is one of the greatest challenges facing humanity. Here are some comments from the Institute's CEO:

The Buck Institute for Age Research was created with a single purpose: to make life better for all humankind, through interdisciplinary research on the aging process and its associated diseases. Our objective is to build a future where growing old no longer means growing ill. We hope our research will lead medicine from the current approach of “reactive aging,” responding to symptoms that appear late in the course of chronic illnesses, to a new era of “strategic aging,” in which the use of genetic markers, preventive measures, and new treatments will guarantee that people in their 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s have the opportunity to live healthy, productive lives.

There is no doubt about the need for such research. In 2010, the first of the 76 million baby boomers will turn 65, the age when health care costs typically begin to escalate. A third of the more than $1.7 trillion currently spent on U.S. healthcare is spent on services for older Americans, and by 2030, half of our projected $4 trillion healthcare costs will be spent on people 65 or older. The long-term health of our economy is intrinsically linked to the health of our seniors. That is why, in addition to prolonging people's health, we hope our work will improve the United States' fiscal health.

And let me finish with a few excerpts from the Nature feature:

The Buck was founded on the premise that ageing and disease are manifestations of the same biological processes, and they can be understood only by working across disciplines. It is a modern take, but it has its supporters, including the US National Institutes of Health (NIH). In 2005, the agency named the Buck as one of five national Nathan Shock Centers of Excellence in the Basic Biology of Aging. And in September, it gave the institute US$25 million to create a new 'interdiscipline' called geroscience: defined as the study of connections between ageing and age-related disease.

....Still, donors seem more excited by the hunt for a fountain of youth than they are about working out the details of normal ageing. “When I say I study ageing, people say, 'You must be rich.' But people aren't rallying to try to understand ageing. They're rallying to cure their son of diabetes,” says Helfand. “The disease people get the money.” The National Institute on Aging's $1-billion budget this year is smaller than that of the major disease-specific branches of the NIH, including those that fund cancer, cardiovascular and brain research. And NIH budgets overall are stagnant — a trend that has hit independent institutes such as the Buck perhaps harder than universities and medical centres, which can count on alumni and patients.

But the Buck's vision is to change that picture. If geroscience works, it will produce drugs that may one day cure or prevent afflictions such as cancer and Alzheimer's disease. And that will benefit regular people — maybe even people such as Hughes, who, upon celebrating his 45th birthday, estimates that he is halfway through his own lifespan.

“I don't think the point of what I'm doing here is to live to 120, but to live for as long as I'm going to live and be healthy, and to help the field think more clearly about real things affecting real people in real time,” Hughes says.

And so it appears that the case for tackling aging itself is really beginning to gain serious momentum. And that is a very good development indeed.