The Ellison Medical Foundation Paving a New Path for Aging Research By Aimee DingwellSeptember 2011
By Aubrey de Grey, PhD
The EMF fills a gap, Advances Science
Such sentiments are echoed by veteran researcher and EMF Senior Scientist Scholar Dr. Judith Campisi. The current research climate “is the worst I have ever seen it,” says Campisi. “And it is particularly bad for basic aging research right now, as opposed to other aspects of aging research, and certainly as opposed to other fields,” notes Campisi. “It is really terrible right now. And what I think Ellison has done is helping to fill a gap that is a real need.”
Campisi, who is a professor and has her own lab at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in Berkeley, California, knows first-hand the difficulties of securing research funding from the standard government sources like the National Institutes of Health (NIH), including onerous application procedures and extensive oversight once funded. “The Ellison Medical Foundation, I believe, has striven to break the NIH mode of requiring extensive preliminary data and really encourages people to even go outside their fields or to bring people who have not worked in aging to begin to apply what they know in other fields to the problem of aging,” says Campisi, who studies the relationship between cancer and aging. “And in my opinion they have been very successful in doing that.”
This is exactly what Ellison and Sprott want to hear. “What we think we can do that is not necessarily done very well by NIH is that we can take a chance on an investigator based on what we know about them in their application or what we know about them from their existing research and track record,” Sprott explains. “If they have a really good idea, we can take a risk because we are not doing it with taxpayer dollars.”
Campisi is a perfect example of this. “Cancer is very different than most other age-related diseases,” says Campisi. “Most age-related diseases are degenerative. Your kidneys stop working well, your heart doesn’t work well, your brain stops working well. But cancer is very different,” she says. “In order for a lethal tumor to form, cells have to acquire new functions, new phenotypes, and so we’ve been thinking for years about whether this is coincidence that cancer goes up with age and all these degenerative pathologies go up with age or whether there is real biology that connects them.”
Telomeres are small units of DNA at the end of our chromosomes. As our cells divide, telomeres progressively shorten until they become dysfunctional, causing aging and age-related diseases, including cancer. But if telomeres can remain intact, they protect the genes inside the cell. Still, while Campisi knew about new theories surrounding telomeres at the time, she had never done research in them.
The funding from The Ellison Medical Foundation allowed her to blend her cancer research with telomere research. “At the time I got my Ellison funding, the major paradigm for understanding this potential link was this idea that telomeres, these structures that cap the ends of chromosomes, get shorter with each cell division. And they also get shorter with age. And when they fail, when they get so short that the telomeres fail to function, the cells become senescent. But when cells become senescent, they change their function so much that they can begin to alter the tissue and cause degenerative changes,” says Campisi. “But I had never worked in telomeres. I was just dabbling.
“So the link between telomeres and degenerative changes was extremely obscure. And it was through The Ellison Medical Foundation that we were able to do some really interesting molecular studies and sort of close that loop to help us understand how it is that telomere failure related to all of the other inducers of senescence and then how senescent cells can change the tissue-marker environment.”
The Ellison Medical Foundation’s funding, Campisi says, was a crucial link that really allowed her and her lab to go outside the box of traditional NIH funding. “It was something we had suspected for many years, and now we have proof, but at the time we only had a suspicion.”
While Campisi is no longer funded by The Ellison Medical Foundation, those advancements have allowed her to continue to make “enormous progress.” Not only has she been able to confirm many of the early, very speculative ideas about how senescence might link to degenerative diseases of aging with cancer, but she also has recently been able to identify that senescent cells may be responsible for chronic inflammation in the body.
“Very often aged tissues are said to have ‘sterile’ inflammation, meaning a pathologist will look at that tissue and see low-level, chronic inflammation, but there is no evidence of a pathogen. It has nothing to do with infection,” says Campisi. “But we now know that senescent cells have the capability to create that kind of environment,” based in part on an evolutionary need, Campisi believes, for the compromised cell to communicate with the immune system to clear the cell. “But if that damaged cell doesn’t go away, it becomes a chronic situation and we think this is a major reason why senescent cells might drive multiple pathologies, because every major pathology associated with aging has a component, either a cause or an exacerbating factor we now refer to as chronic inflammation.”
Basic Research means Saving Lives
With this type of knowledge, scientists and researching physicians affiliated with groups like The Ellison Medical Foundation and Life Extension Foundation® are able to do much more to extend our healthy life spans and prevent needless deaths.
The Ellison Medical Foundation has also funded major initiatives in longevity genes and life span extension. In 2000, Dr. Nir Barzilai at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University also became a Senior Scholar in Aging. His research focused on identifying longevity genes and biological factors associated with long life span in humans based on Ashkenazi Jews and Old Order Amish populations. He found that both groups had significantly larger high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) particle sizes than control groups.
As many Life Extension readers may already know, in terms of cardiovascular health, this characteristic is associated with lower prevalence of hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and metabolic syndrome. Dr. Barzilai’s research identified two genetic alleles seen with increased frequency in the centenarians and their offspring. His research even found that one of the genetic mutations also conferred better cognitive function in the centenarians.
“What we’re doing is investing philanthropic dollars in basic research that has the potential to have a very large impact on everyone’s lives,” notes Sprott. “When you look at the website and look at the projects we fund, you see a lot about life span extension. But we don’t fund them for precisely that reason. We fund them to understand the basic processes so that we can improve the quality of the latter part of the life span. So we are more interested in quality rather than quantity,” notes Sprott. “And our underlying theme is that if we can eliminate the diseases that are age-related that will translate into a big effect for people’s lives.”
What’s the Future of Aging Research?
Going forward, Sprott’s goal for The Ellison Medical Foundation is to “stay on top of what is cutting edge research at any point in time and make sure that we are leading and providing the funds for those cutting edge scientists to get far enough down the road that they are successful for funding from more traditional sources.”
And come late summer and early fall, Ellison, Sprott and the foundation’s Scientific Advisory Board will have funded a new round of New and Senior Scientists. Still, The Ellison Medical Foundation only funds a researcher once, which means there is still a tremendous unmet need in aging research. “We have a firm policy that no one gets a second award,” Sprott says flatly. “When we first started out, we thought we would run out of bright people fairly fast. But in fact, we get more and more good applications every year. We have been at this 14 years and we are finding more and more really good people. But if we give people second awards—we’ve funded 800 so far—there would be another 800 people standing in line looking for an award. And we wouldn’t fund anybody new.”
Larry Ellison and David Murdock (described below) are examples of what ultra-wealthy individuals should be doing to fund research aimed at eliminating the horrific consequences of aging and its associated pathologies. They are not the only philanthropists supporting aging research, but they remain in the tiny minority.
Unlike any other philanthropy, the fruits of aging research benefit virtually every human on the planet. Even if one were to find a cure for all cancers, this would only benefit those stricken with cancer. Aging, on the other hand, strikes every human who lives long enough.
Based on what you are learning in this month’s issue of Life Extension Magazine®, scientists are discovering enough about the mechanisms of aging to make significant strides…but only if enough research dollars are intelligently allocated to perfect methods to control and reverse it.
If you have any questions on the scientific content of this article, please call a Life Extension® Health Advisor at