Worm Research Sheds Light on Human Aging and Disease
During medical school in China, Kailiang Jia, M.D., Ph.D., certainly didn’t imagine that he’d end up working with worms.
What he did know was that instead of just removing tumors as a surgeon, he wanted to study the genetic mechanisms that caused tumors. His interest led him to pursue his Ph.D. at the University of Missouri in the lab of Donald Riddle, Ph.D., a renowned geneticist studying the development of a kind of worm called Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans) and later as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in the lab of Beth Levine, M.D. Levine, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and recognized for discovering the role of autophagy – a cellular process to dispose of dysfunctional cellular components – in the development of tumors in mammals.
C. elegans has been studied for decades as a model organism to research aging and aging-related diseases because of its short life cycle and life span, as well as the fact that its signaling molecules – such as insulin-like peptides – are similar to those that affect the aging process in humans. Jia, Assistant Professor in the Charles E. Schmidt College of Science, and his colleagues in the Jupiter Life Science Initiative recently discovered that autophagy in worms controls their ability to recover from starvation-induced developmental arrest, a hibernation-like, non-aging stage. Understanding this process will help researchers discover new therapeutic methods for treatment of age-related human diseases.
Under a recently awarded, three-year R15 grant from National Institute of Child Health and Human Development for $356,678, Jia’s group will investigate the interactions between autophagy and specific signaling pathways within the cell to enhance understanding of the role that these pathways play in controlling development of human diseases, including cancer, neurodegeneration, aging, obesity, diabetes and parasitism.
Jia credits the successful grant application on collaboration with partners at Scripps Florida and the Max Planck Florida Institute, both located on the Jupiter campus.
“As an affiliate member of Scripps and Max Planck, I have full access to all of their high-tech facilities,” he said. “For example, I have access to equipment that accurately measures cellular respiration and I plan to carry out high throughput drug screening in the future. We also hold regular joint meetings about aging, worms and neuroscience. These active collaborations contributed to the perfect scores on ‘research environment,’ one of the criteria for grant review.”
“I am very excited to have a chance to participate in this cutting-edge research,” said Justin Minnerly, a Ph.D. candidate working in Jia’s lab. “I think we’ll help solve the fascinating biological question of why we age and discover how this process can be slowed.”
If the research proves successful, Jia’s goal is to identify chemical compounds that could eventually become drugs that could positively affect human aging and aging-related diseases.