Dr. Edmund Acevedo has researched and studied the effects of stress on the body, in particular the cardiovascular and immune systems, for more than 15 years. His research has been conducted in collaboration with other investigators and numerous graduate students. More recently, Dr. Acevedo and a former Ph.D. student, Dr. Aaron Slusher, have expanded their research to examine the possible benefits of physical activity on the effects of aging on the stress response.
“My work has been on stress physiology for many years,” said Acevedo. “Aaron [Slusher] started working with me four years ago, and he wanted to gain a greater understanding by considering the functional age of the cell.”
Slusher recalls the time around Christmas 2016 when he received a paper from Acevedo and noticed that the research in the paper addressed a critical element to consider when trying to understand the cell’s response to stress. That element of interest is the functional age of the cell, which is quantified by telomere length within immune cells. Telomeres cap the ends of your cell’s chromosomes and protect your DNA from being damaged, similar to the plastic caps that keep the ends of your shoelaces from fraying. In addition, telomeres progressly shorten as we age, and their length provide a clinical snapshot for the health and age of the cell.
Slusher began to wonder, “Can telomeres be another way of understanding somebody’s response to stress? Whether it ‘s mental stress or physical stress such as exercise? It became very evident, very quickly that this was too important to ignore. And really, from a scientific perspective as a student, what we all kind of want to latch onto is something that we feel that we can make a significant contribution.”
Acevedo, Slusher and the research team launched an investigation into 2 groups of subjects ranging in age, weight and physical activity level to see if the telomere lengths could predict or explain the cell’s response to physical or psychological stress levels.
“We stimulated the cells to see how they would respond to an [inflammatory] activation. We take the cells out of the body, spin them down so we just get the immune cells and then we attack them with some biochemical agent, and then how they respond tells us how functional they are,” said Acevedo. “We also stimulated the system with exercise, and to examine mental stress, we had participants participate in a computer task that has been shown to elicit a stress response.
By looking at the cells, it is possible to identify whether or not a young person who is not physically active or an older person who is physically active share the same qualities in their immune cells. The age of the cell, which can be found through telomers, is important to consider when trying to understand the cell’s response to stress.
Now working as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Michigan, Slusher is continuing his research in telomere biology to study both aging as well as cancer therapeutics.
“My goal with this post doc is to continue to accumulate the scientific tools that are necessary to address challenging questions in the field of telomere biology. By including techniques that I learned at VCU as well as continuing to evolve my toolkit here at Michigan, I’m striving to be at a point where I can start my own lab and carve out my own unique niche within telomere biology,” said Slusher.
Acevedo and Slusher also want to help progress on therapeutic approaches so they can better understand whether exercise slows the aging process or exercise can be used to reverse or treat diseases through these mechanisms associated with telomeres.
Research to find a way to reverse the aging process is still in its infancy, but the evidence suggests that there could be a novel way of doing so in humans.
“The way of doing it is still unknown,” said Slusher. “Part of my research right now is focused on the cancer side of the spectrum. A lot of those lessons that we’re learning – treating and manipulating telomere biology within cancer as a treatment strategy – can be sort of flipped on the other side and applied towards the aging.”
It helps Slusher to think of it as a light switch, and if he can control the light switch by turning the biology of telomeres on and off again then perhaps he could use those findings and apply them to slow the progression of aging and/or treat age-related disease as well.
“We may not be able to cure aging if we think of it as a disease,” said Slusher, ”But we certainly can enhance somebody’s quality of life.”
Written by Jess Wetzler