Shock Center awarded
"The impact is that through our center we’re developing novel rodent models that allow us to study and gain new insight into the biology of the aging process," said Dr. Richardson, professor in the Department of Physiology and career research scientist at the South Texas Veterans Health Care System, Audie L. Murphy Hospital. "We’re a regional resource not just for the faculty at the Health Science Center but are also available to investigators studying aging at other institutions."
The objective of the center is to stimulate and enhance research into the basic biological processes of aging by developing cutting-edge research techniques and innovative, experimental model systems. Eventually, research supported through the center will lead to breakthroughs in understanding the course of normal aging—diseases and conditions that affect the elderly, such as frailty and cancer.
"One area of focus in the center is transgenic/knockout rodent models, through which researchers have studied oxidative stress, one of the most popular theories in aging," said Dr. Richardson, who also holds the Methodist Hospital Foundation Chair. "When cells use oxygen, they generate free radicals that can damage components of the cells’ membranes, proteins or genetic material by ‘oxidizing’ them—the same chemical reaction that causes iron to rust."
Free radicals are highly charged and destructive molecules that have been linked to a list of conditions affecting the elderly. An increase in the generation of free radicals can lead to cell damage and death, say experts in aging research.
Free radicals can be produced by radiation, air pollution and other environmental agents, and are generated during metabolism by a single-electron transfer to oxygen. Free radicals and reactive oxygen species have been implicated in a variety of diseases. The list of oxidative stress-related conditions, especially those affecting the older population, has grown increasingly the past 10 years. Arthritis has joined Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, atherosclerosis, inflammatory bowel disease and lung cancer.
"With our rodent models, which are engineered to be less or more prone to the oxidative stress, we can ask, ‘Do they age more or less rapidly? Do they acquire diseases more rapidly or slowly?" said Dr. Richardson.
"Through the Shock Center, investigators have access to a variety of transgenic/knockout mice with alterations in the antioxidant defense and other processes, for example DNA repair status," he said.
The Shock Center consists of five Resource Cores, a Research Development Core and a Program Enrichment Core.
The Genomic Assessment Core provides investigators affiliated with the Shock Center with the ability to analyze their rodent model systems for DNA and chromosomal alterations.
In the future, the core will also provide center researchers with DNA arrays to measure the effect of aging on global gene expression.
"In six to 12 months, we should be able to make our own microarray systems or ‘gene chips’ to be used in research by the faculty and investigators right here on campus," said Dr. Richardson, of what he considers one of the most important aspects of the Genomic Assessment Core.
"It’s just a matter of getting the equipment up and running and getting quality assurance on the products we’ll produce. It’ll be much more economical for researchers," says Dr. Richardson. "Commercial prices for this type of service can range from $1,000 to several thousand dollars. We project it’ll cost approximately $200 a slide—or less."
The microarray facility will be housed in the South Texas Centers for Biology in Medicine. Two other areas under the Shock Center umbrella are the Research Development Core and the Program Enrichment Core. The overarching goal of the Research Development Core is to expand the scope and quality of research in the basic biology of aging at the Health Science Center. This core develops young investigators for the future needs of biological gerontology, particularly to maintain the Health Science Center’s lead in the field of aging.
This lead is maintained through the award of Shock Center grants to researchers in the pilot grant program. Junior faculty and experienced faculty new to aging research compete for grant funding up to $40,000. The center awarded $127,000 (announced in the Sept. 22 issue of This Week) in grant funding for 2000.
The Program Enrichment Core serves to enhance the research environment in San Antonio and the South Texas region. The core also provides a centralized resource in computational biology for the optimal design of studies of aging in rodents, efficient data collection and management, valid statistical analysis and presentation of results.
"We built the center on our strengths five years ago in 1995, when we were one of only two founding institutions in the nation awarded the first Shock Center," said Dr. Richardson.
Currently, the NIA supports three other centers: The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; the University of Washington, Seattle; and the University of Rochester, New York state.
— Fernando Serna