SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Though the fountain of youth myth has enthralled explorers and dreamers for centuries, the scientists at the Barshop Institute for Longevity and Aging Studies are more focused on things such as molecular changes caused by exercise.
In their quest to discover ways to help people live longer and better, that hunt at the molecular level, they hope, could someday pinpoint a drug to produce exercise's benefits.
Dr. Nicolas Musi, who became the institute's director last summer, told the San Antonio Express-News (http://bit.ly/1acrYjg ) that the Barshop will put new emphasis on translating its research into practical applications with the help of $4 million in "exceptional item" funding approved by state lawmakers this past legislative session.
The institute is part of the University of Texas Health Science Center. Its mission, Musi said, is "to promote extension of life, but a healthy life and a happy life."
"We don't have any fountain of youth or magic pill, so common-sense recommendations (for healthy aging) are absolutely valuable," he said, adding that the health benefits of exercise include everything from reduced cancer risks to acting as an anti-depressant, though scientists don't fully understand the molecular mechanism responsible for helping the body stay healthy.
If researchers can understand those changes, "perhaps we could develop an intervention that could be a medication that will mimic the effect of exercise," he said.
A large proportion of people who are living longer suffer from diseases and disabilities, Musi said. The life expectancy for those born in 2010 was almost 79 years, about a decade longer than those born in 1950, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
Musi, 43, who was born in Mexico City, became interested in the fields of metabolism and endocrinology during his residency at the University of Miami. Fascinated with how one organ can control the function of another by secreting hormones, Musi joined the health science center in 2003.
He called the Barshop's founding director, Arlan Richardson, a "wonderful mentor." Richardson said in an email that he is transitioning to become a geriatrics professor at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center and senior research career scientist at the Oklahoma City VA Medical Center starting Jan. 1.
Musi said he wants the Barshop to maintain its focus on the basic biology of aging by, for example, continuing studies of the naked mole rat, a peculiarly long-lived and cancer-resistant rodent.
Another area of emphasis, he said, is expanding its stem cell research program, which holds the potential to combat aging and related diseases, such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.
The findings could ease the aging process among San Antonio's sizable population of older adults. More than 10 percent of the city's population was 65 or older in 2010, according to the Census Bureau. Musi said the Barshop has already worked with local retirees, such as those living at the Air Force Villages, to participate in studies.
"I don't want to live 150 years if I'm blind and deaf and dumb and having my nappy changed," said Rochelle Buffenstein, a physiology professor at the Barshop. "I'd much rather be healthy and fit for as long as I can and then drop dead suddenly."
Buffenstein studies mole rats, which live much longer than mice, maintain normal physiological function throughout their lives and resist cancer even when scientists paint their skin with carcinogens.
"We've never seen cancer in our (naked mole rat) colony, and we know that about 70 percent of mice die of cancer," said Buffenstein, who is originally from Zimbabwe and who collected the progenitors of her current colony of about 2,500 from 300 rodents from Kenya in 1980 — most found nesting beneath a sweet-potato field. They can live about 31 years in captivity, compared with an average mouse's three- or four-year lifespan.
Buffenstein said the naked mole rats are able to keep their insides in pristine condition: They are very good at making proteins correctly and they have high levels of proteasomes, which are the garbage disposals in the cells that get rid of damaged proteins.
Those mechanisms, which make them resistant to cancer and Alzheimer's, may be translatable to other species, including humans, she said.
Veronica Galvan, an assistant physiology professor at the Barshop who is originally from Argentina, also uses rodents — mice and rats — in her study of what happens in an Alzheimer's-like brain.
Galvan said people have traditionally, though incorrectly, thought about aging as a general, uniform deterioration. Instead, one or several key systems will fail but some organs and cells still function well until death. The brain is likely no different, she said.
For her study, researchers took rodents that had either Alzheimer's or cognitive decline and inactivated a protein that drives brain aging. Deactivating the protein significantly improved their cognitive abilities, such as those needed to navigate a water maze, she said.
"For the first time in history, we have a chance to essentially tweak, modify and retard the rate of aging in a whole organism and in the brain as well," she said.