Engrossed in his piles of research and studies on the third floor of Cook Hall, professor and researcher Richard Morimoto seeks to understand and discover the reality behind aging in humans. To Morimoto, age isn’t just a number, but a crucial element that affects the human body on a cellular and molecular level and dictates the standard of life.
“Aging is not something a freshman or sophomore thinks about,” Morimoto explained. Although aging is a continuous process taking place every second of life, it’s something that we as humans look over only until it begins to explicitly affect us on a physical and mental level. The problem with the way humans comprehend aging is that they cease to realize that with increased age, whether it’s from age 17 to 30 or from 45 to 60, any increase in any age will always have an increased risk for disease, Morimoto explained.
Morimoto’s motivation to conduct research on the effects of aging and its relation to diseases stemmed from the current group of adults in society that are aging. As these adults begin to grow older, there will be a burden on society to provide for their medical needs and services. Although these adults are at the risk of acquiring myriad diseases, the most threatening of those are neurodegenerative diseases, according to Morimoto. “There are no drugs for these diseases,” Morimoto said. Instead of letting this harsh reality defeat his hopes of finding answers, however, he allows his curiosity to act on the current ambiguity of these diseases and his hopes to change the quality of life through this discovery-based research project.
Morimoto has been awarded a grant to study aging and is leading a team of renowned scientists from different universities across the country. When asked about how they’re conducting this research, Morimoto explained that he and his team have created the Proteostasis Institute that allows them to build machinery for their research and focus on the million dollar question: What defines aging? Morimoto and his team are honing on the specific phenomenon of the first molecular event in a human body that predicts the course of aging.
When talking about aging on a molecular and cellular level, Morimoto explained how a young cell has maximum efficiency, but as it ages, the quality control of the cell fails, allowing the system to shut down and cease to detect problems. Diving into a more scientific lens, as one ages, their proteins aggregate, creating toxicity and lack of function in the cell. The quality control system of the cell can no longer detect problems and react to them. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, “Cellular function can be targeted to overcome the lack of quality control”. This is exactly what Morimoto and his team are working on as they attempt to manipulate the quality control system in order to directly affect cellular function in a positive manner.
In order to understand this complex issue on a simpler level, Morimoto likes to use the college dorm analogy. Imagine a typical double room suite in the Lincoln residential building. If all four suitemates are compulsive and clean, all the rooms and the common room will stay clean. The four suitemates will live in harmony and everything will run efficiently. That is exactly what a young cell is like. It’s functioning at maximum efficiency and can react to any problems. Now, imagine the same scenario, but this time, one of the suitemates is very messy. She’s always dumping her mess into the common room and will sometimes come into the other rooms and leave her mess there. At a particular point, the clean and organized roommates give up in frustration. The young cell that was organized at first and was functioning at full capacity has now been affected and starts to deteriorate.
Morimoto and his team are focusing on how to reengineer the quality control system in a way that allows it to help cells that are at extreme risk due to aging. They utilize pharmical machinery and work with unicellular organisms such as yeast. Their goal isn’t to find the cure of these neurodegenerative diseases that result from a failed quality control system in an aging cell, but to discover ways that this quality control can be manipulated in order to better the quality of life through the process of aging.
“Evolution doesn’t care about aging,” Morimoto said. Evolution doesn’t care for old grandparents or parents even if a baby needs them. Evolution will independently dictate the process of aging without any regards to human. Although this is unfortunately the sad reality, Morimoto admits that “aging is a part of life” and him and his team will do what they can to improve the quality of life as aging progresses.