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A New Approach to Studying Aging

An illustration depicting a woman aging, from a baby to an elderly woman.

Researchers explore the physiological mechanisms of aging with the ultimate goal of improving healthspan.

Published March 11, 2020

By Hallie Kapner, Academy Contributor

When mechanical engineer Carlotta Mummolo, neurobiologist Eleni Gourgou, and neuroscientist Teppei Matsui were teamed up in the Interstellar Initiative — an international mentorship program for early-career investigators — their first task was finding common ground.

Eleni Gourgou, PhD
University of Michigan

“We have such diverse backgrounds that I initially joked we were speaking different languages,” Mummolo said. “Overcoming that challenge was fun and exciting, and with the help of our mentors, we found a research direction that unites our expertise.”

Presented by the Academy and The Japan Agency for Medical Research and Development, the Interstellar Initiative recently concluded the second of two workshops for this year’s participants.

Organized around the theme of Healthy Longevity, the workshops challenged researchers to develop a plan for exploring the physiological mechanisms of aging, with the ultimate goal of using their findings to improve healthspan, or the time during which a person is healthy.

We spoke with the winning team about their forthcoming grant proposal, the importance of international collaboration, and their advice for young scientists.

Describe the area of research your team is pursuing.

Carlotta Mummolo, PhD
New Jersey Institute of Technology

Teppei Matsui, PhD, University of Tokyo: We chose to focus on age-dependent changes in the relationship between motor behavior and cognitive behavior.

Eleni Gourgou, PhD, University of Michigan: Carlotta is an engineer and roboticist whose work mostly focuses on humans, Teppei is an expert in brain imaging in rodents, and I study neurobiology using roundworms as a model system. These organisms are very different when it comes to the complexity of the nervous system, behavior, and how they experience aging. We looked at the questions we’re addressing in our own research, then tried to find a common thread that allows us to use three different organisms as three different approaches to address the same target. That thread turned out to be locomotion and cognition.

TM: By bringing this problem to the abstract level— motor behavior versus cognitive behavior as a function of age—we can study different animals within the same framework.

Carlotta Mummolo, PhD, New Jersey Institute of Technology: This is the novelty of our project, because assessments of motor and cognitive performance are usually done separately. But we wanted to integrate them and look for a methodology that translates across species.

EG: The final research proposal is still taking shape. We will continue to work on it, then submit it to an international funding agency.

Mentorship by senior scientists is central to the Interstellar Initiative–how have your team’s mentors shaped this experience?

Teppei Matsui, PhD
University of Tokyo

CM: For early-career scientists, mentorship is everything, and that’s true even more so in this case. Our mentors—Frank Kirchhoff of the University of Saarland and Haruhiko Bito of the University of Tokyo Graduate School of Medicine—pushed us to broaden our mindsets and step out of our comfort zone to find a unified approach. We’d also like to thank mentors Lawrence Hunter, Sofiya Milman, Mahendra Rao, Ikue Mori, and Meng Wan for helping shape our research idea.

TM: Mentorship is very important, and Interstellar Initiative mentors are prominent researchers who have experience with both obtaining competitive grants and reviewing grants. In the first meeting, we received valuable advice about to make our project more appealing and convincing to grant reviewers.

CM: One of our mentors told us something that I’ve kept in mind throughout this project—she told us to focus on integration, innovation, and impact. That was very helpful.

How can international collaborations help further scientific careers and scientific discovery?

TM: Biology is becoming a “big science” these days, and it is necessary to form a big team of experts to do cutting-edge science. For small countries like Japan, it can be difficult to find experts within the country.

EG: International collaboration isn’t new to most of us, but the way we collaborate in the context of the Interstellar Initiative is very different. Many of us have different professional backgrounds and training, and the concept of collaboration doesn’t have the same meaning for everyone. There are cultures of collaboration that you have to integrate in order to work together, and this is something I may not have experienced if it wasn’t for the Interstellar Initiative. It was a great, eye-opening experience for me.

CM: When you exchange ideas with people from different backgrounds, you never know what could come from the conversation. Sometimes that’s how very interesting scientific ideas come about.

What advice can you offer to young scientists?

CM: Step out of your comfort zone! Don’t be afraid, and don’t hold back when you have opportunities to do things outside of your field or your usual mindset.

EG: There’s always something to learn from people—from peers and mentors, of course, but also from people in earlier stages of their careers. Their perspective might shed light on a different aspect of our own work.

TM: I’d encourage young scientists to apply for the Interstellar Initiative.

Brightest International Young Scientists Reach for the Stars

By Hallie Kapner

When Japanese physicist Kumiko Hayashi of Tohoku University and neuroscientist Ephraim Trakhtenberg of the University of Connecticut met at the New York Academy of Sciences this year, the synergies between their work weren’t immediately obvious. The two scientists were paired together as part of the Interstellar Initiative, a joint project of the Academy and the Japan Agency for Medical Research and Development (AMED), which grouped 50 early-career scientists from around the world for interdisciplinary research projects.

“The biggest global challenges, whether in health, the environment, or energy, require scientists with different expertise to work together,” said Academy President & CEO Ellis Rubinstein. “The Interstellar Initiative brings together brilliant young scientists who would likely never cross paths, and supports them as they develop solutions to major health issues.”

Devising New Therapies

Hayashi and Trakhtenberg are devising new therapies to restore neuronal function following injury. As human cells mature, their ability to replicate is severely reduced. This phenomenon is especially prevalent in the brain, where the creation of new neurons exists only at very low levels in adulthood, and Trakhtenberg’s work suggests that motor proteins may be involved in this loss.

“If we can understand the dynamics of these proteins, we may be able to reverse the process,” he said. Over the past several years, Hayashi developed novel algorithms that can be applied to motor protein measurement and analysis. “I don’t know much about neuroscience,” she said, “but it turns out that my algorithms can illuminate some mechanisms of the brain.”

From left to right: President Suematsu, Japan Agency for Medical Research and Development (AMED), recognizes the collaborative work of Japanese physicist Kumiko Hayashi, Tohoku University and neuroscientist Ephraim Trakhtenberg, University of Connecticut, along with Ellis Rubinstein, President and CEO, New York Academy of Sciences at the recent Interstellar Initiative workshop presented by AMED and the Academy.

International Collaboration

This teamwork is precisely what AMED president Makoto Suematsu envisioned creating through the Interstellar Initiative, part of a broader strategy to bring international partnerships and new funding streams to Japan’s R & D pipeline. As technological advances that enable data sharing and ease remote collaboration have become ubiquitous, Suematsu believes it is crucial for Japanese researchers to join global research efforts.

“International collaboration is critical in many fields,” Suematsu said. “From infectious disease outbreaks to cancer treatment and drug development, we can accomplish much more when we reach out, shake hands and collaborate.”

Cancer Research

Another Interstellar Initiative team, comprised of NYU biologist Carlos Carmona-Fontaine, oncologist Valerie Chew of Singapore Health Services and physicist Shuichi Shimma of Osaka University, is juggling large time differences and global transport of perishable patient samples as they pursue their project. Blending Chew’s expertise in oncology with Carmona-Fontaine’s efforts to understand the role of metabolites in cancer cells and Shimma’s imaging techniques, the group is uncovering the interplay of metabolite activity and immune changes in tumor cells.

Noting that the Interstellar Initiative breaks down barriers that inhibit cross-disciplinary partnerships, Carmona-Fontaine commented that scientists “usually stick to our own communities, and there’s often a disconnect between scientists from different parts of the world — yet there are many advantages to learning different ways to look at a similar problem.” Chew was thrilled to be paired with teammates who brought both new expertise and new technologies. “If you’re working in your own zone, you’ll do what’s familiar,” she said. “But bringing together different disciplines and technologies creates a novel, creative environment for solving problems.”

Realizing Applications For Their Research

Proposals devised by Interstellar Initiative teams will be submitted to international funding agencies. For physician and biologist Deepak Lamba and biologist Akira Satoh, such funding may help them realize applications for their research. Lamba, who is developing methods for using stem cells to repair retinal tissue, is working with Satoh, whose research is illuminating the regenerative pathways of amphibians. They are probing the factors that influence regenerative capabilities in mammalian and amphibious cells, with the hope of developing methods of repairing and regenerating damaged tissue.

“[Stem cell research is] moving so quickly that I think we’ll start seeing applications in the not-so-distant future,” Lamba said. Satoh noted that stem cell research is less popular among Japanese scientists, while Lamba added that few labs in the US are using amphibians to study regenerative pathways. “We would never have done this on our own — it’s a unique challenge for us to do together.”

Rubinstein is quick to highlight that this is just the beginning for the Interstellar Initiative. “This is only our first cohort, and there’s so much exciting research in the works already,” he said.