Hutch News

Pushing the science of aging past infancy

Nov. 20, 2003
Drs. Jerry Radich and Peter Rabinovitch work at computer

Drs. Jerry Radich (left) and Peter Rabinovitch are co-principal investigators of a five-year effort to research the relationships between the biology of aging and cancer. The program will involve scientists in both disciplines at the center and the University of Washington.

Photo by Todd McNaught

Researchers at the center have received a $3.4 million grant to study the intimate link between cancer and its greatest risk factor-aging.

The five-year grant will establish the Seattle Cancer and Aging Program, a collaborative venture by Fred Hutchinson and the University of Washington to investigate the relationships between the biology of aging and cancer and develop new prevention and treatment strategies for cancer.

At the end of five years, the program is expected to become part of the Fred Hutchinson/University of Washington Cancer Consortium, the Cancer Center Support Grant (core grant) from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) that is shared by the two institutions and Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center.

The center and UW's combined strengths in aging and cancer were the basis for the grant. The co-principal investigators are Dr. Peter Rabinovitch, director of the Nathan Shock Center of Excellence in Basic Biology of Aging at UW and a member of the Public Health Sciences Division, and Dr. Jerry Radich, a member of the Clinical Research Division. Radich has developed molecular tests to predict cancer relapse and prognosis.

The grant is funded jointly by the NCI and the National Institute on Aging (NIA). It will foster collaboration between two fields that historically have not been studied in a concerted fashion, said Rabinovitch, also a professor of pathology at UW.

"Most people are aware that the incidence of cancer increases dramatically with age, which is another way of saying that the biology of aging and cancer are fundamentally linked," he said. "Yet we tend to forget that aging is the single greatest risk factor for cancer. There has been a historical scientific complacency about aging's role in many diseases, including cancer. This grant allows us to focus on the intersection of these processes."

The aging and cancer grants were conceived at a joint NIA/NCI workshop held in June 2001. Participants noted that people 65 years or older are at the highest risk for cancer. For all cancers combined, people 65 years or older have an incidence rate 10 times greater than the rate for those below 65. The cancer death rate for older patients is 16 times greater than the rate for younger patients. Workshop participants urged that increased funding be directed toward research at the cancer/aging interface since the number of individuals in the 65 years and older age segment of the U.S. population is expected to double from 35 million to 70 million by 2030.

Rabinovitch said that several recent advances in the study of aging have given scientists hope that it may be possible to interfere with a process once thought to be inevitable.

"Until about 15 years ago, we understood fairly little about aging and could do even less," he said. "But with the discovery of telomerase, an enzyme that increases cellular lifespan; studies showing that regimens like caloric restriction can extend lifespan; and the identification of longevity-related genes in yeast, flies, worms and mice, the understanding of aging-and the ability to ameliorate some of its effects on cancer-is within our grasp."

The Fred Hutchinson/UW grant will support five initial one- to two-year pilot projects, a seminar series and workshops to bring together experts in both fields. Additional pilot-project funding will be available after the first year of the award through a competitive proposal process.

The program is expected to span multiple areas of research; however, Radich said the first round of pilot projects will focus on the basic biological characteristics unique to cancer cells or cells that are nearing the end of their lifespan. In both cell types, chromosomes may be missing or mutated, a condition known as genetic instability. Other areas of research will include studies of cancer treatment effectiveness in older populations, end-of-life care for cancer patients and the effects of age biases in health care on access to preventive screening.

Pilot projects

"For the initial pilot projects, we chose those that proposed to explore intersecting aspects of cancer biology and aging that could be accomplished quickly and had potential to spin off to major grant funding," he said. "We went with our strengths in molecular and cell biology, banking on our reputation for translating basic research to clinical applications."

Initial pilot projects have been awarded to:

  • Dr. Joachim Deeg, Clinical Research Division: Aging and myelodysplasia;
  • Dr. Dan Gottschling, Basic Sciences Division: Genomic instability in old yeast: A model for the link between cancer and age;
  • Dr. Peter Rabinovitch, UW Dept. of Pathology and Public Health Sciences Division: Age, telomere shortening and the risk of gastrointestinal cancer;
  • Drs. Jerry Radich and Derek Stirewalt, Clinical Research Division: Surrogate markers of cancer susceptibility in older patients; and
  • Dr. Jim Roberts, Basic Sciences Division: A possible new function for telomerase in tumorigenesis.

Rabinovitch said that after five years, the outcomes of the pilot projects and education efforts should provide the necessary infrastructure for a formal program in cancer and aging within the Cancer Consortium.

"It has taken a long time for the science of aging to leave its infancy," he said. "But we expect that what we learn through this program will directly translate to cancer care."

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