New Scholar Award in Aging
Zhou Songyang, Ph.D.
Baylor College of Medicine

Functional Analysis of Aging and Cell Survival Signal Pathways in Mammalian Cells

One intriguing puzzle in modern biology is how different life-spans and aging rates are determined in different species. Answers to such questions will help us battle various aging-related diseases, and ultimately improve the health and quality of life in humans. Aging rates are believed to be primarily controlled genetically, although environmental factors may contribute as well. The life span of an organism is intricately controlled through the network of signaling pathways mediated by cellular gene products. It is believed that coordinated gene expression and modulation by extracellular factors may be crucial. Several diseases that affect the aging process in humans have been identified. And multiple candidates that may regulate human aging have been proposed based on studies of these diseases. In Werner's syndrome, a mutation in the WRN gene results in inheritable premature aging. In Alzheimer's disease, neuronal degeneration and apoptosis may be responsible for the onset of neurological disorders. However, the exact mechanisms that lead to these aging-related diseases remain poorly understood.

In the past few years, my interest has been to identify and study genes that regulate cell survival and senescence, two pathways that are important for aging. A number of aging-related genes have been identified in lower organisms. Aging regulatory genes are likely to be conserved throughout evolution, therefore mammalian homologues of these genes are likely to exist. The short-term goal of our research is to (1) study the role of a protein kinase named Akt in mammalian aging and (2) identify mammalian homologues of DAF-16, a gene that has been shown to regulate cell survival and longevity in lower organisms.

Our long-term goal is to isolate new cellular factors that modulate the aging process in mammals. We have begun to use new genetic approaches developed in the lab to clone genes that prevent programmed cell death in mammalian cells. These genes will be expressed in human fibroblast cells to study their effects on the cellular aging process. In addition, transgenic mice that overexpress these genes will be generated to determine if they prolong or lessen the survival and life-span of aging mice.

Contact Dr. Songyang.