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Innovation

These 3 Scientists Could Someday Change What Your Golden Years Look Like

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Johnson & Johnson and the National Academy of Medicine have collaborated on a competition to kick-start research that's poised to revolutionize the field of healthy longevity. Meet some of the researchers who have big ideas in the pursuit of "immorbidity."
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t sounds like a futuristic concept: live to 100 years old (or longer!) without illness or disease.

While the idea may seem like the stuff of sci-fi, some of the scientific community’s brightest minds are already on this quest for “immorbidity," or a life free of disease—and they’re making real progress.

Take neurologist Alessandro Biffi, M.D., who is trying to find a way to detect dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other age-related brain disorders using a simple eye exam, with the hopes that earlier diagnosis and treatment can improve or even reverse some of these issues.

Or Nathan D. Price, Ph.D., who's studying what’s arguably one of the most buzz-worthy areas of medicine: the microbiome. He believes a simple blood test could potentially help doctors shift a person’s microbiome in the direction of better health for years to come.

These scientists are just a couple of recent winners in the first round of the National Academy of Medicine's (NAM) Healthy Longevity Catalyst Awards in the United States. The awards are sponsored by Johnson & Johnson Innovation LLC and part of a larger NAM initiative called the the Healthy Longevity Global Competition, which is aimed at spurring innovation that has the potential to transform the field of healthy longevity.

Two more rounds of Catalyst Awards will be held through 2022, and approximately 450 awards worth $50,000 each will be given out worldwide over the duration of the multiphase competition. Between 2023 and 2025, one or more Grand Prize winners will be awarded up to $5 million to help make their game-changing innovations a reality.

Curious to see how these big ideas could change the way we age? We sat down with three Catalyst Awardees to hear more about how they're making major strides toward a longer, healthier life without disease.


  • Alessandro Biffi, M.D., assistant professor of neurology at Harvard University and a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital Share
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    My Big Idea: Could It Be Possible to Detect Brain Aging With a Simple Eye Exam? Alessandro Biffi, M.D., assistant professor of neurology at Harvard University and a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital

    "The idea first came to me at the dinner table with my wife.

    She's an optometrist, and we were discussing something interesting that we had both started observing: Patients with abnormal readings in retinal imaging—the pictures eye docs take behind the eye—who didn’t have an eye disorder were developing dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and other brain-related disorders a few months later.

    This happened with more regularity than you’d imagine, and our chats over dinner inspired me to look at the scientific literature. Sure enough, there is some initial evidence to support that changes in the retina can signal brain disease.

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    expand An image of the eye and retina

    A view of the eye's retina

    My wife and I looked at each other and thought: If we collect a little data, maybe we can substantiate this claim.

    So, we got to work. The beauty of being a clinician investigator is that when you observe something with an open mind, you often arrive at questions you might not have otherwise landed on if you were strictly in the lab. Sure enough, we did go on to find that, in a handful of patients, changes in the retina were correlated with age-related brain disorders.

    Here’s our central idea: The retina is actually part of the brain. It’s connected to the brain and contains neurons and their associated blood vessels. So if there are changes happening in the brain, those should be reflected in the retina.

    The problem with our current technology for diagnosing brain disorders is that it involves an MRI, which is both expensive and requires dedicated expertise when it comes to reading the images it provides. Using technology that already exists to take pictures of the retina—called Optical Coherence Tomography—would allow for faster, more portable and less expensive screening for brain conditions. It would also require less expertise when it comes to reading the results.

    If we can figure out a way to detect brain disorders before patients are symptomatic, it would be incredible. Many of these conditions can be staved off with early prevention and treatment, and some can even be stabilized permanently.

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    We’re in the early, proof-of-concept stages right now, but our hope is that we’re able to tackle a big problem related to longevity: brain aging. It’s one of the main contributors to loss of quality and quantity of life.

    If we can figure out a way to detect these brain disorders before patients are symptomatic, it would be incredible. Many of these conditions can be staved off with early prevention and treatment, and some can even be stabilized permanently. So the sooner we have a sign that changes are taking place, the better.

    Thanks to the Catalyst Award, we’ll be able to test our hypothesis by leveraging electronic data that already exists on patients with retina scans and established brain-related diagnoses. Right now, the data we have shows changes in the retina definitely occur when changes in the brain occur. What we now need to determine is if the signals in the retina can be picked up consistently on a large scale, and whether the system can be simplified enough to be both easy to use and easy to interpret the results.

    I’m going through all sorts of emotions as I work on what I hope will be a biomedical breakthrough, from gratitude for all of the people involved in this project—especially my wife—to fear that our proof of concept won’t play out.

    But I do think what we’re trying to do is possible, and my hope is that we will be able to arm researchers with a new, highly efficient way to study brain-aging disorders—and provide doctors with new tools to help our patients live longer, healthier lives."

  • Katrina Abuabara, M.D., a dermatologist practicing at UCSF Health Share
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    My Big Idea: Could Keeping Skin Moisturized as You Age Prevent Chronic Inflammation? Katrina Abuabara, M.D., a dermatologist practicing at UCSF Health

    "Skin isn’t always on the average person's list of most important organs—but it makes up 16% of our body weight! Luckily, it’s starting to get a bit more time in the research spotlight.

    I’m a dermatologist and epidemiologist and my work has mostly focused on eczema, a condition that causes dry, itchy skin. I started out studying eczema in kids with a focus on the long-term course of the disease. I wanted to know why many children with eczema get better by adolescence. I also wanted to know what rates of the condition looked like among adults.

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    expand An image of the skin barrier

    A close-up look at the skin barrier

    Through our analysis, we were surprised to find very high rates of eczema among older adults, which led me to think more about the skin barrier in this group. As we age, the skin barrier declines. That’s why a lot of older adults have dry, itchy skin and develop rashes; it’s a result of changes happening in the skin.

    This led me to wonder about aging skin, in particular. I became fascinated with the idea that, if we maintain skin health as we get older, it could make a big difference when it comes to aging, particularly as it relates to systemic inflammation.
    Here’s why: The skin is the body’s largest surface for direct contact with the outside world and the first layer of the immune system’s defense. Our skin’s basic function is to keep all the good stuff in and protect us from exposure to toxins or microbes. When that exposure does happen, inflammation can result. It's a short-term reaction the immune system sets into motion to handle whatever invaders might have entered the body. Once the immune system has finished the job, it turns off.

    It’s exciting to think that safe, low-cost, and widely available emollients—which can be used in community settings across racial, ethnic and socioeconomic contexts—could help restore skin barrier function enough to lower blood inflammatory markers.

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    Yet as we get older and our skin barrier naturally declines, we’re exposed to more things that stimulate our immune system chronically. In other words, that built-in defense that’s designed to work in the short-term starts to work non-stop, and you get the kind of chronic inflammation (a.k.a. inflammaging) that can cause disease.

    This led to my hypothesis: If skin barrier dysfunction is an important source of chronic inflammation—and chronic inflammation is a major cause of disease and other health problems as we age—what if we could restore the skin’s barrier with emollients and reduce inflammatory levels? This simple, inexpensive treatment could equitably improve the healthspan of older adults.

    There is some existing research that shows this hypothesis might be proven. For example, one small study from China found lower levels of inflammatory markers in nursing home patients who used moisturizer on their skin compared to those who didn’t.

    There’s a lot more work to be done understanding what kinds of emollients work best, how often they should be used and where they should be applied. We also need to better understand which measures of skin barrier function and inflammation are important.

    But it’s exciting to think that safe, low-cost and widely available emollients—which can be used in community settings across racial, ethnic and socioeconomic contexts—could help restore skin barrier function enough to lower blood inflammatory markers."

  • Nathan D. Price, Ph.D., professor and associate director of the Institute for Systems Biology Share
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    My Big Idea: Could a Simple Blood Test Find Disease-Causing Bugs in Your Microbiome? Nathan D. Price, Ph.D., professor and associate director of the Institute for Systems Biology

    "It’s an exciting time to be studying the microbiome, arguably one of the most buzz-worthy fields in medicine at the moment. While we know this ecosystem of bugs that live in and on the body plays a role in healthy longevity, we don’t know a lot about how or why.

    That’s what I’m aiming to find out—and two recent studies from my lab are a good start.

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    expand The gut microbiome

    The gut microbiome

    The first study found that you can predict important health aspects of the microbiome with a simple blood test. For example, certain metabolites, which are byproducts of the metabolism process, will show up in the blood when there’s a healthy diversity of bacteria; other metabolites will be present if there are too many or too few of a particular species—these are scenarios that might lead to disease. This finding is actually pretty huge! It means that we should be able to test the health of a patient’s microbiome without actually looking at that person's microbiome.

    It will also allow us to take a personalized medicine approach to treatment. If a blood test shows imbalances in your gut bugs, we can look more closely at your microbiome to determine what your particular problems are and try to shift your microbiome in the direction of better health. I see a future in which we’re able to use various treatments that target and kill disease-causing species, or introduce a probiotic that will out-compete the bad bugs that are causing your problems.

    Our research was able to show that microbiome uniqueness was predictive of survival of all causes of mortality, and related to higher walking speed, fewer medications people take in older age and how healthy a person rates life to be.

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    The other study looks at the uniqueness of the microbiome. You’ve probably heard about the importance of a diverse microbiome when it comes to optimal health: The more different types of species you have covering different areas of your microbiome, the healthier you’ll be.

    Well, it turns out how unique your gut bugs are to you also matters. Our research was able to show that microbiome uniqueness was predictive of survival of all causes of mortality. Not only that, but it was also related to higher walking speed, fewer medications people take in older age and how healthy a person rates life to be. Healthy aging and microbiome uniqueness go hand in hand.

    The really cool thing is that these seemingly disparate research studies can be used together. That is how we’ll ultimately be able to steer someone’s microbiome, hopefully fixing what’s off-kilter and could ultimately cause disease and making tweaks to promote optimal health.

    My hope is that we’ll be able to translate this research and these theories so they work in the clinical setting, which would ultimately make a real difference in people’s health as they age. There’s a ton of great research happening in the microbiome field right now. The time is ripe to think about how we can actually leverage the info we have on microbiome and how it relates to healthy longevity."

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Check out all of the round 1 awardees in the U.S. and around the world, and see how their innovations are poised to change the way we think about healthy aging.

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