Scientific Initiatives / Healthy Aging

Healthy Aging Initiative

Thanks to advances in nutrition and health care, people are living longer than ever before. This is a gift of modern society, but it also brings a higher risk of cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and other age-related diseases. We're going to change that.

The Healthy Aging Initiative will foster collaboration among Salk's investigators and generate revolutionary discoveries that help people stay healthy longer. The initiative will serve as a focal point for interdisciplinary research, attracting people from a wide range of disciplines to aging research, including the next generation of scientists. It will allow Salk researchers to explore how age-related changes in one cellular pathway have a cascade of effects throughout cells and organs, resulting in the development of chronic diseases of aging. And it will speed their investigations into how molecular wear and tear on neurons leads to neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

With their in-depth knowledge of age-related diseases and biological pathways, Salk scientists are uniquely prepared to uncover the common biological mechanisms of aging, thereby helping people stave off disease and enjoy a high quality of life in their advanced years.

Healthy Aging Initiative

As the proportion of the population over the age of 65 has steadily risen, so too has the incidence of age-associated disease, with its attendant personal, social and economic costs. Biomedical science has been the main contributor to the dramatic increase in longevity seen over the last decades. Now a new challenge lies ahead: understanding, treating and ultimately preventing age-related disease and disability, so as to extend healthy life.

Launching the Healthy Aging Initiative as part of the first-ever Campaign for Salk is a crucial step in developing therapies that target the causes—not just the symptoms— of the diseases and disabilities associated with aging. The initiative will explore such questions as:

  • Why is aging the number-one risk factor for neurodegeneration, cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease?
  • What molecular mechanisms are at the root of age-related conditions and how are they related?
  • Can we prevent multiple diseases by targeting a few common aspects of aging?

In an era of reduced federal research funding, the program will support promising projects that would not otherwise receive support and will maximize the benefit from every dollar through sharing space, equipment and support personnel.

Salk’s Healthy Aging Initiative will bring together experts from different fields of aging research to unlock the mysteries of aging and age-related diseases. Philanthropic resources will be vital during the program’s first five years, and the Institute specifically seeks support for the following four elements:

The Innovation Seed Grants program will support pioneering, collaborative research projects that are unlikely to be funded by traditional sources because of the nontraditional approach or lack of preliminary results.

The initiative will place talented young researchers in training positions that span several laboratories. By crossing traditional boundaries, postdoctoral trainees will gain a sophisticated understanding of how the body’s interrelated systems change over time.

For the initiative to reach its maximum potential, a specialist in epidemiology and the systems biology of aging will be recruited. This investigator will complement the skills of the Institute's other scientists by developing innovative methods in bioinformatics, network analyses and complex computer simulations.

The Salk Institute recognizes that foundations often require matching funds from their beneficiaries. The Institute therefore seeks to establish an endowed leveraging fund whose annual payout will provide perpetual leverage to attract large grants and ensure the program's financial future.

The research priorities for the Healthy Aging Initiative are three broad, interrelated aspects of aging:

Aging occurs at the cellular and molecular level. Telomeres, for example, the protective caps on the chromosomes containing our DNA, shorten as we grow older. Understanding how this influences other cellular pathways may explain why some people enjoy long, healthy lives and may lead to new therapies for age-related diseases.

How different kinds of cells age is another important question. Some cells are replaced regularly, but others remain in the body for an entire lifetime. Further studies will reveal how deterioration of such cells results in aging of the brain and other organs.

Stem cell research is also central to the science of aging. In the earliest stage of embryonic development, stem cells have the power to become any type of tissue in the body. The ultimate therapeutic promise of stem cells is to generate new tissues to replace those damaged by aging, disease and injury.

When healthy, our bodies operate through seamless interactions among multiple interconnected systems— from the molecular machinery of individual cells to those involving multiple organs. To fully understand aging, we need sophisticated knowledge of how these systems change over time and the consequences of those changes.

The Healthy Aging Initiative will allow researchers to study the breakdown of equilibrium among the body’s systems using organisms such as fruit flies and mice, in which aging can be studied rapidly. They will employ powerful computational analysis to track complex biological processes and predict the outcomes of system disturbances.

To better prevent and treat age-associated conditions, we must first identify the common roots of multiple chronic diseases. Chronic inflammation, for example, appears to play a critical role in a range of age-related illnesses, including cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.

Diabetes caused by the inability of cells to respond to insulin illustrates how the consequences of a single molecular defect can ripple throughout the body. The resulting high blood sugar levels impair vision, kidney function and the vascular system and may be linked to other age-related diseases, such as cancer.

Discovering the common causes of age-related diseases will pave the way to finding powerful new therapies.

Fred “Rusty” Gage is developing a novel stem cell-based therapy for Parkinson’s disease.

Jan Karlseder has discovered how telomeres located at the ends of chromosomes signal the approach of cell death.

Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte has created induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) from skin cells to provide new insights into the aging process and the treatment of disease.

Martin Hetzer has discovered that extremely long lived proteins (ELLPs), which are found in neurons, may play a role in the aging process in the brain and the onset of neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s disease.

Kuo-Fen Lee, Fred Gage, Inder Verma and Stephen Heinemann are developing gene therapy-based approaches to treat Alzheimer’s disease.