The next CNIO–“la Caixa” Frontiers Meetings will take place on May 7-9
Ageing is the common risk factor for the most common illnesses in the developed world, such as cancer, cardiovascular disease and neurodegenerative disorders. If until recently, ageing was not considered to be an objective within reach of science, various findings, especially over the past decade, have led to a complete paradigm change. The forthcoming prestigious CNIO–“la Caixa” Frontiers Meetings (7th, 8th and 9th May) will bring around twenty of the world’s leading experts in the science of ageing to the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre (CNIO), in Madrid, whose research seeks to understand the deterioration of the organism over time in order to try to avoid it and hence prevent the disease.
The CNIO Frontiers Meetings (CFM) have been held since 2010, and have become consolidated among cancer researchers as one of the congresses of international reference by participants and for the issues addressed, which are always areas of maximum activity.
The CFM Molecular, Cellular and Organismal Hallmarks of Ageing, organised by the researchers, Maria A. Blasco (CNIO); Kathleen Collins (California University in Berkeley, USA); Alejo Efeyan (CNIO); and Thomas Rando (Stanford University, USA), deals with ageing from numerous lines of research, seeking dialogue between them all. The programme includes 21 leading researchers in their respective fields, closely related to the ageing process: damage and protection of DNA, stem cells, cell energy and nutrients, and epigenetic.
As Collins explains, “other congresses on ageing fall short in terms of the interrelation between the different fields, but experts with an unprecedented depth and width participate in this congress, and the format also invites questions and discussion”.
“We want to generate synergy between researchers who use very different experimental tools to understand the biology of ageing, such as molecular biology, samples of progeria patients and long living individuals, and genetics of model organisms, such as flies, worms, fish and mice”, points out Efeyan.
Blasco, one of the leading defenders of the idea that acting on ageing is key to preventing and treating pathologies such as cancer and cardiovascular disease, claims that the moment at which this CFM is being held cannot be more opportune: “Advances are being made at a dizzying pace in the understanding of the mechanisms of ageing and their relationship with illness; it is an area of research that we need as we are living longer and we want to be in good health”.
Among the participants Cynthia Kenyon (California University in San Francisco, USA) can be highlighted, author of one of the discoveries that led to the paradigm change in the study of ageing, and currently the Vice-President of Research into Ageing at Calico, the company backed by Google devoted to the study of longevity.
At the beginning of the 1990s, Kenyon discovered a mutation in worms that duplicated the life span of animals in good health. It was like seeing “nonagenarians with the appearance of people aged 45”, said the researcher. The finding ended the idea that the life span assigned to each species is immovable, and stimulated many other research groups. Nowadays, the life of other model organisms has been significantly prolonged, acting on genes with similar functions to those identified by Kenyon but also through other mechanisms. In 2008, Blasco managed to increase longevity in mice by 40%, the record in mammals to date, modifying the capacity of animals to produce the telomerase enzyme and increasing their resistance to cancer. More recently, her group has proven that gene therapy with telomerase slows down the progression and cures pulmonary fibrosis in mice.
Among the participants, Thomas Rando (Stanford University, USA) also stands out, co-organiser of the meetings, who is researching the role of stem cells in ageing. His group has proven that there are biochemical signals that induce the stem cells to repair the aged tissue, a finding with important implications for medicine regenerative.
“Unthinkable 20 years ago”
One of the ideas that has most clearly emerged in recent years is that ageing is a complex process, but not unapproachable: “The situation is comparable to that of the molecular biology of cancer two decades ago: instead of thinking about a single mechanism or a single genetic route, we can see a network of different mechanisms with common themes”, says Collins.
Collins has just published the three-dimensional structure of the telomerase, an enzyme with a key role in the longevity of cells and therefore in ageing and in cancer, in Nature, along with the Spanish researcher, Eva Nogales. It is a long awaited achievement which facilitates the design of drugs that interact with telomerase, and which “has required a great deal of effort and persistence”, claims Collins.
Efeyan also believes that “the conceptual and technological changes that have occurred in research into ageing now give us a better understanding of how and why we age, which was unthinkable 20 years ago. Many of the authors of these advances will participate in this congress”. In his opinion, there is no doubt that “in the not too distant future, research may help to delay the process of ageing, or contribute towards healthy ageing, curing certain associated illnesses. This will have, and indeed is having profound social consequences which need to be addressed by us all and not just from science”.
His own research focuses on the area of nutrients and the cell metabolism, with an important role in the speed and way in which we age: “We know that consuming 30% of the calories of a normal diet delays ageing in practically all species, but we know very little of the internal processes and the genes responsible”, explains Efeyan. Understanding this process properly could enable “a drug to be designed that generates the same effect but avoiding the chronic limitation of nutrients, which is feasible in experimentation animals but is extremely difficult to be carried out by humans”.