Boston College’s own Eranthie Weerapana has published research that points toward a better understanding of aging and its consequences. In a paper published this summer, Weerapana, an associate professor of chemistry, discusses the research she and other professors conducted on protein damage in C. elegens. C. elegens is a type of microscopic worm commonly used as a model organism in the study of longevity.
Professor Weerapana’s work revolves around the struggle to understand oxidative stress—that is, the damage to proteins and DNA that is caused by the increase of radicals as we age. The damage inflicted by these radicals upon our proteins and DNA is what causes physiological decay.
“Oxidation to a particular protein speeds up the aging process,” Weerapana said. Her research attempts to answer whether or not slowing down protein damage can increase an organism’s life span. And if so, what proteins do we need to target?
Weerapana used a method called cysteine-reactivity profiling to target proteins with the amino acid cysteine (pronounced “sis-tine,” like the chapel). Cysteine is particularly susceptible to oxidative stress, and the research team set out to log the effects that silencing cysteine-containing proteins would have.
What the researchers found was interesting: The silencing of the proteins LBP-3 and K02D7.1 extended the lifespan of C. elegens by 23% and 36%, respectively.
According to Weerapana, the primary limitation in aging and oxidative stress research “is that we are studying this in worms and what we really need to do is study this in higher organisms.”
The reason C. elegens is used in research like this is the convenience that its short life span provides. Weerapana pointed out that the microscopic worm only lives for about two weeks, which allows scientists to monitor the entire duration of its existence.
The hope is “that what we find in these model organisms will translate to humans.” Professor Weerapana said that she believes researchers will very likely be able to move onto studying larger and more complex organisms within ten or fifteen years.
The long term goal of inhibiting the aging process by selectively targeting damaged proteins may sound like a fantasy of science fiction. But Weerapana is confident that her vision will one day be a reality. “Ideally what we’d like to do is have a pill that can reverse the damage. And that is very far in the [future] but that is ultimately where we’d like to go. If we better understand all of the proteins and pathways that are affected, we can better design a therapy to target those pathways and prevent or even reverse the damage.”
Before this can happen, researchers need to exhaust their understanding of oxidative stress in microscopic worms and other simple lifeforms before moving onto larger organisms. Future research is “going to be very much related to understanding how proteins are damaged... We don’t fully understand which proteins are damaged and what the functional consequences of that are.”
When asked if she believes in the possibility that millennials could be the first generation to never have to face death, Weerapana laughed. “The way I look at longevity…is not to make us live infinitely longer. It is to increase health span, not lifespan.”
She said that if one day, far in the future, 70-year-olds can operate with the same quality of life as 40-year-olds, our society will greatly benefit from increased productivity and the healthcare industry's lessened burden.
Despite the end of death not being in sight, Weerapana’s research shows that, within our lifetimes, we may see a sharp rise in quality of life.