Research Highlight July 16, 2019

JAX postdoc Kira Young lands ASH Scholar Award

ash scholar award kira young aging research 

JAX postdoctoral associate Kira Young, Ph.D., has received the ASH Scholar Award from the American Society for Hematology to support her research studying “old blood.” Young is using the award to understand the different types of white blood cells that make up the immune system and how they change as we age.

Age-related changes in the immune system reduce our ability to fight infection and can even lead to disease – specifically, to blood cancers. Blood cancers will make up 10% of all newly diagnosed cancer cases in the US this year. That means that every three minutes, someone in the US will be diagnosed with leukemia, lymphoma, or myeloma.

Young, working in the laboratory of JAX Associate Professor Jennifer Trowbridge, Ph.D., is determining which blood cells are produced at different life stages. She wants to see how imbalances in the types of blood cells can put older adults at risk for blood cancers. Young uses mice to understand age-related changes that occur in humans, given that blood development happens much the same way in both species.

Maintaining the ideal balance between the different types of blood cells becomes harder with age. In general, Young has found that the balance tips to favor production of red blood cells and innate immune cells at the expense of the white blood cells that make up the adaptive immune system. This change contributes to decreased immune function and increased risk of myelomas.

Young has identified a growth factor in the bone marrow that seems to control age-related changes in the types of blood cells produced. Amounts of the growth factor decline with age. When she added back the growth factor in middle-aged mice, she restored the balance of blood cells to what she sees in young mice. Next, Young wants to discover if this growth factor could be used therapeutically.

The $100,000 ASH Scholar Award provides Young with two years of support for her research and training. Young, who came to JAX in 2014 after earning her Ph.D. at the University of Maine, was previously awarded support from JAX’s NIH-sponsored Developmental Genetics Training Program.

“I am honored to receive the ASH Scholar Award to pursue these exciting questions in the area of aging hematology at this critical stage in my career,” said Young. “My long-term goal is to increase the wellbeing and healthspan of our aging population and these studies are a critical step towards achieving my goal.”

“This award comes at a pivotal moment in Kira’s scientific career. Earning this prestigious recognition from senior colleagues in the field represents their investment and confidence in her ability to lead an independent and impactful scientific program,” said Trowbridge. “I am excited to be a part of these studies that will generate new insights into how and why our blood and immune systems decline with age, and critically, how we can prevent this from occurring. Both Kira and I are thankful to ASH for this opportunity.”