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Does oxygen give us gray hair?
UTHSC project seeks understandings about aging

Oxygen is an enigma. It is our life, for without it we could not breathe. Paradoxically, however, it is our death, because its volatile activity in our cells appears to speed up our aging.

A new five-year, $5.8 million grant from the National Institute of Aging is enabling professors at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UTHSC) to study how certain oxygen molecules, called free radicals, affect the aging process. These molecules behave like pinballs, colliding with everything in their cellular path. "Over time, free radicals may accelerate aging and contribute to many age-related diseases," said Brian A. Herman, Ph.D., professor and chairman of cellular and structural biology at UTHSC.

Dr. Herman and three other project leaders are studying how free radicals injure cell "energy centers" called mitochondria. The free radicals damage genes in the energy centers, in turn damaging proteins expressed by the genes. Over time, the chain of events is believed to result in aging.

The project leaders and areas of interest are:
Dr. Herman, who found that free radicals' activation of two key enzymes, called caspases, increased in certain organs of mice as they matured. In an attempt to retard aging, his team is engineering mice that lack the genes to express these caspases;
Christi A. Walter, Ph.D., professor of cellular and structural biology, who asks whether free radical damage to mitochondrial DNA might impair the mitochondrias' ability to produce energy and lead to cell death. Her group also is developing mouse models;
Arlan G. Richardson, Ph.D., professor of physiology and director of UTHSC's Aging Research & Education Center, who is testing mice that have an enhanced anti-free radical defense system with the hope of seeing whether this slows aging; and
James D. Lechleiter, Ph.D., associate professor of cellular and structural biology, who is studying how mitochondria regulate calcium signaling — and vice versa — during aging. Calcium enhances cell survival by signaling mitochondria to make energy, but if the signal is prolonged or too high, the result can be cell death.

These scientists' findings about the molecular pinballs and related topics should be of interest to all of us as we age.

The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio has one of the nation's premier programs in aging research. UTHSC is second only to Harvard/ Massachusetts General Hospital nationwide in the amount of federal funding for aging studies. Dozens of faculty are asking fundamental questions about aging as part of four ongoing multimillion-dollar program project grants from the National Institute on Aging.

Contact: Will Sansom