In this Session with a Scientist, we sit down with Aric Rogers, Ph.D., to learn more about the important initiative he’s been working on and to hear the incredible impact donors have on his research.
What’s the primary goal of your research at the MDI Biological Laboratory, especially as is relates to human health?
My primary goal is to understand the genetic circuits controlling health and lifespan; information that can be used to develop clinical studies and therapeutics that improve quality of life, specifically by increasing the duration of adult life that is spent in good health.
Our approach involves looking at experimental results in a number of different species to understand what nature changes and what it holds onto. They’re called “comparative studies” and they are paramount to any effort to apply what is learned so it has the greatest chance of being translated to a clinical setting.
What is the Roger’s Lab main area of focus?
The primary area of investigation in my lab is how dietary restriction improves health at every level, from the molecular to the whole animal. One of the biggest unanswered questions is “how does it do this?” We ask this question, but we also ask, “why does it do this?” The “why” gets to evolution and it’s guided us to changes happening on and around the machinery that controls protein production in our cells, and how steering the response of dietary restriction from that point may be the key to understanding a problem that has vexed scientists for decades.
Has your lab’s approach been successful in getting attention and support from agencies like the National Institutes of Health (NIH)?
Our approach has yielded fruit with new insights and garnered support from the NIH. The NIH is necessarily conservative when it comes to scientific proposals for funding. To justify spending to taxpayers, they want projects that are very well defined and safe.
One of the benefits of having strong support from other sources, especially from our donors, is that it allows for a bit of calculated risk to accelerate discoveries. For me, it’s a lot about the comparative studies. The success of longevity research comes from the fact that the switches controlling survival are super-well preserved. The fact that anti-aging drugs work to extend lifespan across species is a powerful testament to the value of a comparative studies approach.
So, then, specifically, what role has donor support played in discoveries and the success of your research?
Donor support is allowing us to carry out comparative studies in flies and mice while continuing to make progress in C. elegans. In so doing, we get an idea about how applicable any particular finding from worms is in other animal systems.
In addition to those comparative studies, donor support also provided seed funding for a new animal system, the African Turquoise Killifish core. This is the most important initiative I been a part of and one embraced MDIBL colleagues, leadership and supporters alike. Killifish use in biomedical science is relatively recent and because of that, MDIBL is joining only a small handful of labs around the world using it.
I refer to the killifish as the “nexus” model because of what it means to an institution like MDIBL, one that is focused on the intersection of aging and regeneration. As strange as it sounds, the worlds of regenerative medicine and aging biology are not close, or at least not as well integrated as they should be. It’s an impediment that slows progress and we’re working to overcome it.
In what way are aging biology and regenerative medicine not well-integrated and why does it pose a challenge to progress?
Integrating aging and regeneration science is not as simple as it might seem because of the lack of models that take both phenomena into account simultaneously. To do that, we need a model that has robust regenerative capacity, is closer to humans on the evolutionary tree, but one that also grows old quickly so we can test interventions and get results rapidly.
These killifish tick all the boxes: they regenerate well, they are a vertebrate, and they have a rapid lifecycle — growing to adulthood in a few weeks and having a lifespan of only a few months. It’s what makes the African Turquoise Killifish a powerful new model to understand the nexus between aging and regeneration.
Is there anything else that donor support can do to promote discoveries and the success of our scientific research at MDIBL?
Donor support is a huge help in providing bridge funding to new projects – when they’re not yet “palatable” to large funding agencies, like the NIH, but with a bit more research and refining, they could be.
A lot of our donors are as passionate about science as we are — and when they talk about MDIBL to their networks, it helps raise awareness of who we are and what we do here. We know we’re not the biggest institute, but we’re proud of our history and the research we’re doing now — and it’s heartening to know our supporters feel the same way.
What is your hope for the future of your research?
My hope is that my lab makes important contributions to aging and regenerative science and that it continues to grow. The single greatest obstacle to progress is having enough talented personnel; people being the most expensive and important part of research. I hope we continue to bring more people into the MDIBL “family” and that we support each other wholeheartedly. It’s the best way for us to accelerate the discovery process and to make a real difference.