The Buck Institute for Research on Aging and Other Bay Area Labs Explore Causes Behind Age-Related Illnesses and How to Stop Them

As the Baby Boom generation swells the ranks of the elderly, the Bay Area’s scientific community is turning its attention to the causes of age-related illness.

The Buck Institute in Novato has become a major player in an effort to find out why the body ages–and how to stop it.

There is an air of excitement in Dr. Judy Campisi’s laboratory. She and her young research team are studying the effects of aging on tiny worms in a process called “senescence.”

Normally, cells will either continue dividing to rejuvenate tissue, or they die. However, senescent cells stop dividing, but they don’t die. Instead, they begin secreting toxic enzymes that cause inflammation.

“The tissues begin to show low levels of chronic inflammation and if that goes on for a long period of time, eventually it will destroy the tissue,” Campisi explained.

At about age 65, human bodies begin to develop degenerative illnesses. Dr. Campisi has been granted $27 million to study if senescence may be behind it.

“Senescent cells can contribute to virtually all of the diseases that we see go up with age, which is 99 percent of the diseases you see in the clinic,” she said.

Things like cancer, Alzheimers, diabetes, osteoporosis, even diminishing eyesight all may be affected by this process.

“And the hope is that by understanding what’s underneath the aging process, the molecular mechanism, we can identify the major risk factor for all these diseases,” said Buck Institute President and CEO Dr. Eric Verdin. “Instead of treating them individually as they occur, you actually are getting to the root core of the problem.”

Dr. Verdin says the Institute’s ultimate goal is to extend the average human lifespan to about 100 years, while limiting chronic illnesses to about the last five years of life.

“Our goal is to transform everyone into a centenarian, so that everyone could live to 90-95 in good health,” said Verdin.

And the institute is getting a lot of help. Using mice as subjects, The Buck Institute is joining the Berkeley-based Astera Institute in a $70 million effort called the “Rejuvenome Project” to understand and possibly halt the aging process.

Dr. Verdin says there are even hints that it may be possible to reverse the effects of aging, allowing humans to actually wind back the clock on their bodies.

“There’s a lot of hope and a lot of excitement that we’re on the verge of really changing the way we will age and the perception of how we will age,” he said.

The Rejuvenome Project is scheduled to last seven years. During that time, scientists at the Buck Institute will be responsible for all hands-on lab work and experimentation.

There are ethical questions. How would it affect the world and its resources if everyone lived to be 100? It’s a question humanity will have to wrestle with. But for now, science is just trying to find out if it may be possible.