U of M Med School Launches New Anti-Aging Research Institute, Hires Leadership Team
Photo by Ken Wolter

U of M Med School Launches New Anti-Aging Research Institute, Hires Leadership Team

The institute will focus on treatments for “cellular senescence” to slow the aging process.

The University of Minnesota has lured a pair of nationally recognized experts in the quickly emerging field of slowing down the aging process at a molecular level to lead a new, high-profile research unit at the University of Minnesota Medical School.
The school announced that Drs. Laura Niedernhofer and Paul Robbins have accepted roles as director and associate director, respectively, for the newly founded Institute on the Biology of Aging and Metabolism, one of four “Medical Discovery Teams” created at the med school with state funding to focus on Minnesota’s most pressing health concerns.
Their appointments reflect how the U of M is getting firmly on board with the booming scientific and investor interest in anti-aging treatments targeting “senescent” cells, or living cells that have ceased to reproduce and accumulate in the body. 
Niedernhofer and Robbins, both of whom are coming to the U from the Scripps Research Institute, have distinguished backgrounds in researching how cellular senescence relates to chronic conditions associated with aging, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, most cancers, dementia, arthritis, osteoporosis and frailty.
The hiring comes as the study of the molecular roots of the aging process has turned into one of the hotter areas of biotechnology investment as researchers work on new ways to halt or even reverse the aging process at a cellular level.
For instance, anti-aging is one of the Mayo Clinic’s areas of venture capital funding. It has backed the much-touted San Francisco-based startup Unity Biotechnology, which has been spun off of research conducted by Mayo’s Jan van Deursen. Van Deursen is an expert in cellular senescence who first demonstrated in 2011 that the elimination of such cells in mice blunted multiple aspects of the aging process.
Unity is preparing an $85 million initial public offering after racking up $300 million venture capital backing from a roster of all-star investors in addition to Mayo, such as Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos and the Rockefeller Family.
Those investors are excited about the potential because emerging evidence suggests many chronic aging conditions may be due at least in part to the accumulation of senescent cells in the body.
The preclinical work done by the U of M’s Niedernhofer and Robbins, as well as Mayo’s Van Deursen, implicate senescent cells in a loss of the body’s tissue-repair capacity as it ages; also, that senescent cells produce pro-inflammatory molecules in what is known as the senescence-associated secretory phenotype. Indeed, the association between cellular senescence and inflammation, as well as related drug discovery, is the specific area of expertise for Robbins, according to the Medical School.
However, translating these findings into relevant drug treatments is currently limited by a fragmentary understanding of both the basic molecular cell biology of in vivo senescent cells and the overall importance of senescence to age-related diseases. This is where the U of M’s new Institute on the Biology of Aging and Metabolism hopes to fulfill its mission to address chronic age-related conditions as one of the chief health concerns of the state.
The new anti-aging institute secured its financial backing as part of a $30 million allocation to upgrade the Medical School proposed by Gov. Mark Dayton in 2015 and passed by the Minnesota Legislature.
Among its provisions were the establishment of four Medical Discovery Teams, each focused on a pressing health concern in the state. Teams have already been established in the fields of addiction, rural/Indian health and imaging/brain science. The anti-aging team was the last of the four to name its leadership and officially launch operations.