By Deepak Vashishth, PhD
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
In the twilight of his career, crooner Dean Martin’s rendition of “Old Bones” captured the hazards and hopes of aging. Singing “Old bones inside an old raincoat, Old Bones inside an old shoe …. Old bones don’t move so fast as they once did in the past” he wished to “Just to have the chance to turn back the hands and let my life begin…Oh yeah, I’d like to do it again.”
Many harbor this dream to age successfully, to maintain their ability to function well as they age; to live longer and better. By 2034 we may be able live the dream. Researchers are poised to unlock the power and potential of proteins, and that will change the way a range of aging diseases — Osteoporosis, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s – are addressed.
Proteins are the fabric of our lives. The human body and its microbiota potentially produce millions of proteins. With time, these proteins get modified, inactivated, damaged, or under- or over- produced. Therein lies the hazards and hopes.
In my lab at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies (CBIS), we have identified protein modifications in bone that, with aging, diabetes, and certain long-term drug treatments, make bone brittle. Armed with that knowledge, and the mechanisms that cause such modifications, we now know how to make old bones new again.
My CBIS colleagues have discovered mis-folded and aggregated proteins in brains with Alzheimer’s. New interdisciplinary collaborations in biotechnology, at the intersection of science and engineering, hold the potential to assay and image such changes almost instantaneously. Antibodies are being designed to prevent the aggregation of select proteins in the brain and to revert the adventitious effects of protein modifications.
Working side-by-side, scientists and engineers at CBIS also have bioengineered bacteria to produce new drugs with low contamination and high specificity. Known as biologics, these drugs contain genetically engineered proteins (or even living cells or tissue) and offer promising treatments for currently untreatable diseases and conditions. The rapidly expanding application of data science in medicine and mapping of the human microbiome, is leading to a deeper understanding of why individuals or a group of individuals respond differently to the same treatment. This new information has opened the door to gene-based and cellular biologics that could be readily ‘personalized’ and made more effective.
This collaborative research at CBIS and elsewhere, all of which engages students and prepares the next generation as interdisciplinary experts, is made possible by support from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the National Science Foundation (NSF). Through continued Federal support and public-private global partnerships among universities and industries, there is great potential to move the outcomes from the lab to the marketplace with extraordinary impact on health care delivery and on day to day living for individuals.
Biotechnology and advance techniques are unleashing a new era with solutions to old problems and a lifeline to emerging personalized treatments. At the current pace of change — capitalizing on our ability to better understand, alter, and produce proteins — we can begin to imagine that diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and osteoporosis, that now wreak havoc on our golden years, will become a distant memory. As Robert Browing said, “Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be.”
Deepak Vashishth, PhD is Director of the Center for Biotechnology & Interdisciplinary Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and a Fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE) in recognition of his groundbreaking bone research. His work, and that of the CBIS, has received support from the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the U.S. Departments of Defense and Energy.