OMRF research could help strengthen an aging population

Published: Tuesday, January 24, 2017 By: Sarah Terry-Cobo Source: The Journal Record

Holly Van Remmen is looking to genetically modified mice for clues to help stem a universal, age-related affliction.

The Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation aging and metabolism research chairwoman and her collaborators at three universities are trying to understand what causes muscle loss. She received a $2.1 million grant to continue her studies on muscle wasting and a cascade of consequences that follow.

There is no good intervention or treatment to reduce age-related muscle loss, Van Remmen said. The affliction increases markedly as people age, particularly after 70. When a person’s muscles atrophy, it leads to weakness and the person becomes more prone to falling, increasing his or her chances of injury. All those things mean elderly people aren’t as independent and their quality of life degrades.

“This is not about trying to make people live to be 400 years old,” she said. “It is how do we live healthier for a longer time and maintain independence.”

The U.S. population is aging and the group age 65 and older will increase by 135 percent between 2000 and 2050, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. People age 85 and older are the most likely to need long-term health care services, and that age group is expected to increase by 350 percent by 2050.

That demographic shift puts more pressure on the health care industry and on government programs that offer support for elderly people, according to an Oxford University study published in 2002.

Van Remmen’s aging grant is part of a four-organization program project grant, which received $9 million total from the National Institutes of Health. The award is the third five-year grant for the group. She is collaborating with researchers at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, the University of Michigan and the University of Liverpool in the United Kingdom. Each investigator has his or her specialty, and they collaborate and share results frequently.

Van Remmen, who is also a senior research career scientist at the Oklahoma City VA Medical Center, said she and her colleagues might not come up with a cure to stop muscle loss. But the studies could contribute to a treatment that delays or diminishes its effects.

Her five employees will examine the neurons that control motor function to understand why those electrical signals to muscles don’t work as well in older animals. Her laboratory’s most recent research on mice showed neurons attached to muscles help those fibers contract. Those neurons detach from the muscle as people age, but scientists don’t fully understand why, Van Remmen said.

She and her lab staff are focused on trying to figure out what sets the stage for those neurons to detach.

“That may be one place we might be able to intervene,” Van Remmen said.

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