Happy new year to all in our NIA community! We look forward to a great year ahead and to sharing the latest NIA news with you. As always, please do not hesitate to reach out with any questions or feedback.
We have quite a few updates to share today:
On January 6th, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced accelerated approval for Leqembi (lecanemab-irmb) for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. Lecanemab is made by the pharmaceutical companies Eisai and Biogen. In 2022, researchers at Biogen/Eisai published the results of a phase 3 clinical trial called Clarity-AD in The New England Journal of Medicine. The results showed lecanemab produced a clear yet modest clinical benefit in people who were in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. In comparison with a placebo, the drug slowed the rate of cognitive decline over 18 months and reduced the levels of brain amyloid. More information is available in an NIA statement.
The NIA Training Office, which supports NIA’s career development programs, will hold its first ever #AskNIA Expert Office Hours on Wednesday, January 25th, from 1:00—1:30 pm ET. NIA’s training and career development experts, Maria Carranza, PhD, and Jamie Lahvic, PhD, will host. Please follow @NIHAging on Twitter and use the hashtag #AskNIA during the event to ask your career development questions, including how to apply for your first research award.
On March 20-22, 2023, NIA will host the National Research Summit on Care, Services, and Supports for Persons with Dementia and Their Caregivers. The summit will review research progress, highlight innovative and promising research, and identify remaining unmet research needs with input from the research community, persons living with dementia and their care partners, healthcare and service providers, and other stakeholders. The summit will be held virtually. To learn more and to register for the event, please visit the summit webpage.
On the NIH Director’s Blog, Dr. Lawrence Tabak, performing the duties of the director of NIH, highlighted an experimental mRNA vaccine which may protect against all 20 influenza virus subtypes. An NIH-funded team developed and tested this unique, universal flu vaccine, which, with one seasonal shot, has the potential to build immune protection against any of these 20 known subtypes and to protect against future outbreaks of influenza viruses with pandemic potential. The new vaccine was developed using the same mRNA technology present in several COVID-19 vaccines, including those of Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech. While the new vaccine has not yet been tested in humans, it has shown promise in pre-clinical studies. Investigators hope to begin a phase 1 clinical trial in humans early this year.
In another post to the NIH Director’s Blog, Dr. Tabak shared top scientific breakthroughs from 2022. These breakthroughs, which were published in Science, include several research achievements made possible by NIH funding. Among these are vaccines for respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, which have shown success in clinical testing. RSV is a leading cause of severe respiratory illness in both the very young and in older adult populations. A second breakthrough is evidence that multiple sclerosis is caused by the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) and that an EBV infection may produce antibodies that mistakenly attack the protective sheath surrounding nerve cells. Third is artificial intelligence, and specifically its widening application into the domains of artistic expression and scientific discovery – areas that were previously considered uniquely human. To learn more, please see the full blog post.
On the blog of the NIH Chief Officer for Scientific Workforce Diversity (COSWD), COSWD Dr. Marie Bernard discussed evidence-based approaches for enhancing diversity in aging research. Dr. Bernard, the former deputy director of NIA, co-authored a guest editorial in the Journal of Gerontology: Medical Sciences on strategies to enhance scientific workforce diversity in the aging-focused research workforce, alongside Dr. Patricia Jones, director of the NIA Office of Special Populations, and Samir Sauma, director of the NIA Office of Planning, Analysis, and Evaluation. The piece outlines the importance of a diverse aging-focused research workforce, challenges to biomedical and behavioral workforce diversity, and approaches NIH employs to help overcome barriers that people from underrepresented groups encounter in scientific pursuits. Drs. Bernard, Jones, and Sauma also shared evidence-based programs and practices to assist organizations in fostering diversity in aging-focused research.
Also on the blog of the NIH COSWD, Dr. Bernard shared new recommendations for enhancing disability inclusion. These recommendations are a product of the Disabilities Subgroup Report of the NIH Advisory Committee to the Director’s (ACD) Working Group on Diversity. The report was formally endorsed by the ACD as a set of recommendations to NIH, including suggestions applicable to internal NIH operations, interactions with the external scientific community, and how NIH thinks about research participant inclusion and health disparities research. In addition, the report highlights a need for more consistent data gathering, with broadened definitions of disability to allow valid comparisons among studies. Dr. Bernard noted that NIH staff will spend the coming months considering the recommendations and encouraged readers to stay tuned for updates.
On the Inside NIA Blog, NIA Director Dr. Richard Hodes welcomed readers to a new year of aging research. Dr. Hodes shared best wishes for the coming year and highlighted key pieces of NIA news, including the recent omnibus appropriations bill, which provides nearly $4.41 billion for NIA and reflects an increase of more than $187 million over the FY 2022 enacted level. It also includes a total NIH-wide increase of $226 million for Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias research. Dr. Hodes noted several upcoming events, including the 2023 Dementia Care and Caregiving Research Summit, to be held virtually on March 20-22, and the fourth geroscience summit, Geroscience for the Next Generation, scheduled for April 24-26 as a hybrid event. Finally, Dr. Hodes reiterated NIA’s prioritization of increasing diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility in both the research workforce focused on aging and in clinical trial participation.
In another post to the Inside NIA Blog, Dr. Jamie Lahvic, program officer for training in the NIA Office of Strategic Extramural Programs, shared new resources to enhance success for applicants to the K99/R00 Pathway to Independence Award. These career development awards can help to facilitate the transition from a postdoc to an independent academic research position, and they provide up to five years of funding across the postdoctoral and faculty phases. Dr. Lahvic announced the posting of another set of sample K99/R00 applications, including both the initial, unfunded application, as well as the successful resubmission. Dr. Lahvic further detailed keys to a strong application, which are available in her full post.
Also on the Inside NIA Blog, Dr. Pragati Katiyar, health science specialist in the NIA Division of Aging Biology, provided updates on senescence science. NIH launched the Cellular Senescence Network (SenNet) through its Common Fund program in 2021, and it now serves as a robust and growing resource for investigators. A recently published paper showcases SenNet and its developing tools and technologies. SenNet’s first-year milestones include establishing standard operating procedures for human sample collection, preservation, and analysis; data quality assurance; and developing a virtual biorepository system. Dr. Katiyar also highlighted the launch of the Comprehensive Underrepresented Summer Internship Program (CUSP), a training opportunity through which undergraduate students from populations historically underrepresented in science will be able to learn more about senescence science.
An NIA-funded research team has developed a blood test to detect early Alzheimer’s disease. The test is designed to detect toxic aggregates, or oligomers, of the protein beta-amyloid. These oligomers can start to form more than a decade before symptoms appear and before other known disease markers form. Known as the soluble oligomer binding assay (SOBA), the test successfully detected oligomers in individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and mild cognitive impairment, as well as in several control participants with no cognitive impairment, who were shown to subsequently progress to mild cognitive impairment. This suggests that SOBA can detect oligomers in blood even prior to cognitive impairment, potentially facilitating early intervention.
Alzheimer’s progression in Down syndrome appears similar to other genetic, early-onset forms of the disease, according to NIA-supported research. This research showed that amyloid plaques, or protein clumps which are one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease, occur at roughly the same level in the brains of people with Down syndrome who have Alzheimer’s as they do in people with forms of hereditary, early-onset Alzheimer’s. The similarity of brain amyloid accumulation suggests that individuals with Alzheimer’s and Down syndrome may benefit from participating in studies of Alzheimer’s therapies aimed at slowing the formation of amyloid plaques.
NIA-funded research suggests that older adults with advanced heart failure report differences in quality of life based on their pending surgical treatment. More than 6 million adults in the U.S. have heart failure, a chronic illness that develops when the heart does not pump enough blood for the body’s needs. Severe heart failure necessitates surgical intervention. In the NIA-funded SUSTAIN-IT study, a group of researchers are exploring differences in quality of life among older adults with advanced heart failure before and after receiving surgical therapies. The present analysis showed that older adults who were ineligible for a transplant and still waiting for surgery to receive a mechanical pump had worse health-related quality of life than those awaiting a transplant. In addition, heart transplant candidates who had a mechanical pump had better health-related quality of life than candidates who had not received a mechanical pump. The investigators will follow the participants for up to two years after surgery to evaluate outcomes related to quality of life.
Optimism is linked to longevity and well-being in two recent NIA-funded studies. In a first study which used data from over 150,000 Women’s Health Initiative participants ages 50–79, optimism was associated with longer lifespan in women from diverse racial and ethnic groups. The most optimistic women lived 5.4% longer (approximately 4.4 years) on average than the least optimistic women. The most optimistic women were also more likely to achieve exceptional longevity, defined as living over 90 years. These trends were consistent across all racial and ethnic groups. In a second study, more optimistic men were shown to have fewer negative emotions, due in part to reduced exposure to stressful situations. Collectively, these findings suggest that increasing optimism may be a way to extend lifespan and improve well-being in older adults.
NIA-funded research suggests that an anti-insulin protein is linked to longevity in queen ants. This protein, known as Imp-L2, is produced in the ovaries of reproductive ants, including queens and gamergates (worker ants that are not queens but can reproduce). Despite having the same genome, egg-producing queens and gamergates exhibit strikingly long lifespans compared to nonreproductive female worker ants. New research implicates the Imp-L2 protein in this discrepancy. In response to cues related to ovary development, Imp-L2 suppresses the insulin pathway that controls aging in the reproductive ants, thereby contributing to their longer lifespan. Though the study is in insects, there are similar insulin pathways and anti-insulin proteins in humans that may offer insights into human longevity research.
Alzheimer’s disease is associated with cholesterol and nerve insulation abnormalities, according to an NIA-supported analysis of APOE gene activity. Apolipoprotein E (APOE) plays a key role throughout the body, helping to transport cholesterol and other fatty molecules, or lipids. One of the APOE gene variants, APOE4, is known to increase Alzheimer’s risk. In this investigation, researchers sought to clarify the role of APOE4 in the human brain through assessment of gene activity in postmortem human brain tissue. They found that the APOE4 gene variant was associated with overexpression and dysregulation of cholesterol, as well as abnormal nerve cell insulation. Researchers also found that cyclodextrin, a drug which promotes cholesterol transport, reduced abnormal cholesterol buildup and improved the formation of nerve cell insulating material. These findings open new avenues for exploring the underlying mechanisms of Alzheimer’s and for designing potential therapeutics.
NIA-supported research has shown that novel blood biomarkers can help to identify cognitive impairment in Parkinson’s disease. In a new study, investigators demonstrated the ability of biomarkers specifically associated with extracellular vesicles to identify whether an individual with Parkinson’s had cognitive impairment. Extracellular vesicles are tiny sacs released by cells in the body for the purposes of transport and communication. In a sample from the New Zealand Parkinson’s Progression Programme, participants with normal cognition had higher levels of the biomarkers alpha-synuclein and IRS-1 and less phosphorylated tau than participants with cognitive impairment. However, levels of the biomarker beta-amyloid did not differ between groups. This indicates that alpha-synuclein, phosphorylated tau, and IRS-1 may play a role in cognition in Parkinson’s disease.
Good hydration is linked to healthy aging, according to an NIH-funded study. The study found that adults who stay well hydrated appear to be healthier, develop fewer chronic conditions, and live longer than those who may not get sufficient fluids. Investigators assessed data from over 11,000 adults across a 30-year period and saw that those with higher serum sodium levels – which go up when fluid intake goes down – were more likely to develop chronic conditions, such as heart and lung disease, and to show signs of advanced biological aging than those with serum sodium levels in the medium ranges. Adults with higher serum sodium levels were also more likely to die at younger ages. These findings suggest that staying well hydrated may slow the aging process and prevent or delay chronic disease.
That’s all the news for now – please stay tuned for more updates soon.
Dawn Beraud, PhD
Office of Legislation, Policy, and International Activities