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New Longevity Institute aims to lengthen human ‘healthspan’

'We want to make it possible to live healthily for a longer period of time'

  • Biological processes that drive aging may be malleable
  • Therapeutics in clinical trials may slow down or reverse aging
  • Aging is a primary risk factor for every disease affecting adults 

CHICAGO — In the not-too-distant future, you’ll be able to check into the Human Longevity Laboratory to find out how old you really are, physiologically speaking. 

If the news is less than optimal, clinicians will determine why and check a litany of body systems as well as your neurological and orthopaedic health. Then, you’ll be prescribed an intervention to stave off further decline or — better yet — restore your vitality. 

Sounds sci-fi, but it’s actually the mission of the new Potocsnak Longevity Institute, which launched today at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

The Human Longevity Laboratory is just one part of the ambitious multi-center Institute, whose goal is to foster new discoveries and build on Northwestern’s ongoing research in the rapidly advancing science of aging. 

“The biological processes that drive aging may be malleable,” said Dr. Douglas Vaughan, director of the new institute and chair of medicine at Northwestern. “We think we can slow that process down, delay it, even theoretically reverse it. The curtain is being pulled back on what drives aging. We want to contribute to that larger discovery process.”

The goal of the institute, funded by a gift from Chicago industrialist John Potocsnak and family, is to extend what Vaughan terms the human “healthspan.” Scientists and clinicians will address the period of life when people are at the greatest risk for aging-related comorbidities — arthritis, dementia, heart disease, diabetes, aging-related cancer, hypertension and frailty. 

“We want to make it possible to live healthily for a longer period of time, not just live longer,” said Vaughan, also the Irving S. Cutter Professor of Medicine. “Aging is the most important risk factor for every disease we care for in adult medicine. If we can push that process back, we can push back the onset of disease.”

The new institute builds on the decades of work by Vaughan and scientists across Northwestern, unifying programs studying populations that seem resistant to some of the negative consequences of aging. These include certain members of an Amish community in Berne, Indiana, who carry a unique genetic variant or a group of cognitively young octogenarians called “SuperAgers.”  Other projects will continue to seek biological levers that drive aging and investigate approaches — including new drugs — to minimize the impact of aging and extend the healthy lifespan of older adults. 

An overview of the Institute:  

Human Longevity Laboratory

“Our tasks, challenges and opportunities at the institute and Human Longevity Laboratory are severalfold,” said Dr. Frank Palella, associate director of the institute and the Potacsnak Family C.S.C Professor at Northwestern. “We plan to ascertain those factors and conditions that determine not just how long people live but how well they live. We will design therapeutic and interventional clinical trials to study important aspects of aging in order to identify ways to extend the healthspan and delay or prevent harmful aging processes. 

“Our goal is, ultimately, to prolong the period of time during which individuals can enjoy optimal physical and cognitive functioning, independence and a full life. The possibilities are staggering.”

What HIV teaches us about aging

The science behind HIV and aging will be a cornerstone of the institute’s research at the Center for Premature Aging and HIV, led by Palella.

While the lifespan of people with HIV has been extended with potent antiviral therapy, these individuals experience accelerated aging in heart disease, cancer, dementia, frailty and other diseases. They also die earlier than people without HIV. One primary reason is chronic inflammation and a constantly activated immune system. 

“HIV becomes a good model in which to explore determinants and interventions for aging processes,” Palella said. “There is a cross-pollination here between studying what improves and extends the healthspan/lifespan of people with HIV and the general population.”

“People who treat HIV and people who are sub-specialists in geriatrics, cardiology, neurology and other health care disciplines will join forces at the center to discuss approaches that will benefit persons with diverse aging syndromes and persons with HIV,” Palella said. 

How some longer-living Amish could help us live longer, too 

A few years ago, Vaughan discovered an extended family of Old Order Amish in Indiana have a genetic variant that protects them against multiple aspects of biological aging. Amish people with this mutation have significantly less diabetes and a younger vascular age than those who don’t have the mutation. It turns out these individuals have very low levels of PAI-1 (plasminogen activator inhibitor), a protein that comprises part of a “molecular fingerprint” related to aging or senescence (inability to divide or repair) of cells. 

“We are collecting data from this natural experiment, and Mother Nature is going to tell us how a drug that blocks PAI-1 could prevent or block aging in an average human being,” Vaughan said. 

Northwestern has contributed to the development of an experimental drug with a Japanese company that blocks PAI-1 that is now being tested in clinical trials. One of these trials is taking place at Northwestern in high-risk patients hospitalized with COVID-19. Since PAI-1 contributes to clotting and drives aging-related morbidity, this provides a unique opportunity to begin testing drugs like this in humans.

The Geroscience Academy will train and educate clinicians, students and scientists about the rapidly progressing science of aging.

“There has been tremendous progress made in understanding what aging is all about,” Vaughan said. “It is moving beyond the realm of science fiction to imagine altering the velocity of aging in humans. The potential impact it may have on us and on our children and grandchildren cannot be overstated.

“We want to be recognized not only as one of the epicenters of aging research but also in teaching our students, faculty and the world about the rapidly evolving science of aging.”

Center for Population Science and Aging 

Scientists in this center will utilize and refine existing tools to demystify the aging process in large populations of humans at all ages.

“There are already well-defined biochemical and genetic markers that can be used to calculate the physiological age of a person and predict their risk for aging-related diseases,” Vaughan said. “These tools will only get better and more precise in the years to come.

“Our biological age is not determined by how many times we’ve orbited the sun as passengers on planet Earth. The complex biological changes associated with aging impact nearly every aspect of a person’s health, but some populations seem less affected by aging than others.”

Center for Nanoscience and Aging

This center will leverage some of Northwestern’s unique strengths to develop nanotechnological devices, novel diagnostic measures and innovative anti-aging therapies and drug-delivery platforms.

“This center will improve our ability to measure the biological age of patients and bring new precision therapies into being that will alter the trajectory of aging,” Vaughan said.  “Scientists will develop novel devices to measure specific physiological parameters that reflect age. For example, the older you get, the slower you walk, your heart rate variability goes down and blood pressure goes up. We might be able to track these types of functional changes in real time in patients enrolled in clinical trials. The goal will be to see if we can impact the patient’s physiological age, maybe with specific lifestyle interventions or new therapeutics.”

Basic and Translational Biology

There is already a tremendous amount of basic and translational research in the field of aging taking place at Northwestern. Research funding from the National Institute of Aging (NIA) has risen to more than $40 million since 2016, placing it at number 13 in overall funding from the NIA.

“We anticipate the resources and new scientific momentum created by the Longevity Institute will allow Northwestern to be recognized as one the leading institutions in the world in the field of human aging and longevity,” Vaughan said.

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