Biologist Vera Gorbunova to lead 5-year project on longevity

April 23, 2014
Vera Gorbunova

University of Rochester Professor of Biology Vera Gorbunova, whose innovative research on DNA repair and the aging process has been internationally recognized, has been awarded a $9.5 million grant from the National Institute on Aging to study longevity.

Vera Gorbunova will lead a five-year project, which includes colleagues at the University of Rochester, Harvard University and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, to explore the factors responsible for longevity in various rodent species, with the goal of developing treatments to improve the aging process in people.

“Professor Gorbunova has made tremendous strides with her research on the anti-cancer mechanisms of naked mole rats,” said University President Joel Seligman. “We are extremely proud that she will now build on this groundbreaking work by leading colleagues at Harvard University and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine to advance our understanding of problems associated with aging.”

Researchers at the three locations will focus on rodents because they are genetically similar to humans and have a diverse range of lifespans. Mice and rats, for example, typically live two to four years, while naked mole rats, beavers, porcupines, and squirrels have lifespans in excess of 20 years. Naked mole rats, which have been known to live more than 30 years, are of special interest since they remain free of age-related problems and disease—including cancer—until the very end of their lives.

“As people age, they are more likely to come down with a variety of diseases, such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, and osteoporosis,” said Gorbunova. “By working together, researchers at the three institutions will be better equipped to make progress in countering age-related health problems in people.”

The work done by Gorbunova and her research partner, biologist Andrei Seluanov, has largely focused on DNA repair and cancer-resistance in naked mole rats in order to better understand the mechanisms responsible for longevity. In papers published last year, they identified HMW-HA (high molecular weight hyaluronan) as the chemical that triggers the anti-cancer response in the naked mole rat and attributed the rodent’s longevity to a process that results in nearly-perfect protein synthesis.

As Gorbunova points out, the University will serve as an ideal center for the research project, given the advances already made by her lab and its catalog of tissue and cell samples from 18 rodent species.

In addition to her leadership role, Gorbunova will conduct research to identify the factors responsible for more efficient DNA repair in long-lived species. With a better understanding of DNA repair, it may be possible to modulate those factors to delay human aging. Also at the University of Rochester, Andrei Seluanov, an assistant professor of biology, will study the mechanisms of longevity and cancer resistance in naked mole rats.

The research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine will be led by Jan Vijg, Ph.D., professor and chair of its Department of Genetics. Vijg, whose work has focused on genomic instability and its relationship with aging, will analyze the role of mutations in short- and long-lived species, and, more specifically, the impact of DNA repair efficiency.

At Harvard University, the research will be conducted by Vadim Gladyshev, a professor of medicine in the Genetics Division in the Department of Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Gladyshev will use his expertise in computational and experimental approaches to examine gene expression patterns across a variety of rodent tissues in order to understand the factors responsible for longer lifespans.

“Research grants of this magnitude are extremely difficult to get,” said Gorbunova. “We were successful because of the unique expertise found at the three institutions and the need to study the issues related to aging.”

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