Why do we age and how?

JAX and UConn search for ways to extend the healthy lifespan of the elderly

Newly re-funded JAX center is empowering innovative approaches to aging research.

Aging is inevitable, but can the diseases of aging be thwarted or at least postponed? New tools, including genetically varied mouse populations and advanced imaging technologies, hold promise for untangling the myriad mechanisms of human aging.

The Jackson Laboratory (JAX) makes these and other tools available to the worldwide aging research community, with support from the National Institute on Aging (NIA).  JAX Center for Aging Research We focus our diverse expertise in biology and genomics on the problems and disorders associated with aging, employing a systems-wide approach to understand aging processes.JAX has one of six NIA-funded Nathan Shock Centers of Excellence in the Basic Biology of Aging, and the grant has been renewed for a total of $5,347,630 over five years.

“The JAX Shock Center has a been resource for the geroscience community for more than a decade,” says JAX Associate Professor  Ron Korstanje, Ph.D.Studies the genetics of kidney function and disease, particularly in the context of aging, using genetically diverse mouse models.Ron Korstanje, Ph.D., co-director of the center. “We provide data and samples from our studies, but most important, we offer a pilot project program for investigators.” 

Twice a year, the JAX center puts out a request for applications for pilot projects, Korstanje explains. “We get about 15 to 20 applications per round. We select the best of those and work with the investigators to conduct the experiments at JAX, providing the preliminary data they can use for grant proposals or papers.” In some cases, JAX invites participating investigators with special expertise to come to JAX for the duration of their experiments.

The New York Times once described the JAX headquarters campus in Bar Harbor, Maine, as the Mecca of the laboratory mouse world. And for decades, mice have been essential to aging research. Lifelong studies are practical in an animal that lives an average of two years in laboratory care. And as fellow mammals, mice and humans share the genetic code that both enables life and programs its eventual deterioration.

Until recently, JAX Shock Center aging studies have been conducted with the world’s most widely used inbred strain of laboratory mouse, the famous C57BL/6J “Black 6” mouse. The Black 6 genome was the first to be sequenced after the human genome, and more is known about the biology of this mouse strain than any other. However, even the mighty Black 6 has limitations: Its very genetic uniformity means that it represents only a sliver of potential genetic variations. 

To better represent humans with all their genetic variability, in the early 2000s an international research team including JAX Shock Center co-director Professor Gary Churchill, Ph.D.Employs a systems approach to investigate the genetics of health and disease and complex disease-related traits in the mouse.Gary Churchill, Ph.D., developed the Collaborative Cross (CC) and the Diversity Outbred (DO) mouse populations by intercrossing genetically defined mouse strains. The mice from the CC and DO populations are genetically diverse and, in the case of the DO mice, unique individuals, like each human.

Aged JAX DO colonies have produced some of the longest-lived mice ever recorded—nearly 5 years, more than twice the average lifespan of most laboratory mice. These individuals could provide valuable insights into the genetic components of a long and healthy life. The JAX Shock Center has conducted several large studies on DO mice over the past decade, and Korstanje says investigators are now able to submit applications for their own projects using DO mice.

The JAX Shock Center is also launching a project to explore senolytic drugs, a hot topic in aging research. Senolytics target senescent cells, cells that have stopped dividing and are the hallmark of many diseases of aging as well as aging itself. “All studies so far have been performed in just a single inbred strain, Black 6,” Korstanje says, “so there's really nothing known about the effect of these senolytics and genetic variation. Our plan is to do a large intervention study, where we compare one group of aged DO mice that get the senolytics to another group that does not.” 

A new Image Analysis Core at the JAX Shock Center will use machine learning to analyze age-related histological profiles. “We're doing this in close collaboration with the Geropathology Research Network,” Korstanje says, “which is an NIA-funded network of pathologists from different universities that are working on standardizing geropathology. Korstanje, whose own lab focuses on age-related kidney diseases, has already launched a study of kidney tissues. “And we're going to expand this to be able to quantify aging lesions in the heart, liver, lung and possibly other tissues.”

Other planned Shock Center projects include aging colonies of several new mouse models for COVID-19 research currently being developed at JAX. “Aging is an important factor in COVID-19, and we want to provide aged mouse models for the community to do pilot experiments on those.” The Shock Center at JAX is also going to collaborate with the one at the University of Washington to support the production of a video lecture series on aging research for use in undergraduate and graduate biology courses. 

Korstanje says he wants the geroscience community to know about all the resources available from the JAX Shock Center. “We can do much more than just provide the aging mice,” he says. “We can be your collaborator to innovate your research programs.”

Nathan Shock Center of Excellence in the Basic Biology of Aging, National Institute on Aging, grant number 2P30AG038070-11