The ageing process - a great mystery for humankind

Professor K. Lenhard Rudolph

From wrinkles on our faces and the onset of physical constraints to serious diseases – nobody is immune to ageing, a process which constitutes one of the biggest mysteries of humankind. Researchers at the Leibniz Institute on Aging – Fritz Lipmann Institute (FLI ) in Jena are trying to unravel this mystery. The main goal of their research is to decode the molecular mechanisms involved in the human ageing process. The work they are pursuing will form the basis for developing treatments aimed at improving health in old age. In our interview, Professor K. Lenhard Rudolph, Scientific Director of the Leibniz Institute on Aging, explains why this research topic is so fascinating and what exactly his institute is working on.

research at the FLI

Professor Rudolph, how do you personally imagine growing old?

I would want to be able to live as I choose with as few physical constraints as possible and remain mentally fit.

To what extent is research already helping to achieve this?

Research has made considerable advances when it comes to prevention. A great deal for example is known about mechanisms that can delay the ageing process, such as remaining physically active or making sure one is not overweight. The real challenge now is to analyse the unavoidable root causes of ageing. Which mechanisms will result in cellular and organ dysfunction and in disease in old age even if a person leads a very healthy lifestyle ? This is a key question for future research into ageing and must be answered if treatments are to be developed that seek to improve health in old age.

Which research projects are you currently pursuing at the Leibniz Institute on Aging –Fritz Lipmann Institute (FLI)?

What sets the Fritz Lipmann Institute (FLI) apart from other institutes is its focus on the causes of stem cell ageing. Furthermore, we research how this stem cell ageing affects the reduction in organ preservation and the onset of diseases in old age. It is now known that stem cells are present in virtually all adult human tissue and that they contribute to preserving organ function throughout our lives. As we age, however, the function of adult stem cells – that is to say those stem cells present in the human organism after birth – declines. This is related for example to the accumulation of molecular damage, while changes in the stem cell environment, in the stem cell niche and in the circulation of the blood also play a role. At the FLI, we have established new model systems such as the short-lived African killifish. With a lifespan of just four to six months, this is the shortest-lived vertebrate that can be kept under controlled conditions in the lab. The FLI was a pioneer in decoding the genome of this fish, which now allows us to decode in fast motion the genetic factors and molecular mechanisms involved in ageing.

Why is it so crucial for young researchers in particular to focus on this subject – and to which disciplines is ageing research relevant?

Ageing research is one of the most exciting fields of biomedical research. We know very little about the mechanisms of ageing, and this is without doubt one of the key questions for humankind. What is more, the subject has enormous social relevance: demographic shifts pose one of the mega-challenges of our time. Ageing research can make a substantial contribution to shaping these changes in a positive way. If we succeed in decoding the mechanisms of ageing, this can serve as the basis for developing treatments designed to extend the time we remain healthy in old age. This will help individuals and society. However, this requires collaboration between disciplines not only within the life sciences but also beyond this domain – such as cooperation with urban planners, economic researchers, psychologists and social scientists. The subject of ageing is relevant to all these fields.

Professor Rudolph, thank you for talking to us!

The Leibniz Institute on Aging

Researchers at the Leibniz Institute on Aging – Fritz Lipmann Institute (FLI) in Jena are working to decode the molecular mechanisms involved in the human ageing process and to treat diseases associated with ageing. Their work will form the basis for developing treatments aimed at improving health in old age.

www.leibniz-fli.de