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Steven Austad, Ph.D.UAB is taking aging research into a new era as one of only six Nathan Shock Centers of Excellence in the Basic Biology of Aging nationwide. Leading the Center’s efforts is the Department of Biology’s Protective Life Endowed Chair in Healthy Aging Research Steven Austad, Ph.D.

Austad’s lab studies mitochondrial function, protein stability, and stress resistance across seven species of clams, with lifespans ranging from one year to the ocean quahog’s 500-plus years. The lab is working to identify exactly what is protecting the clams’ proteins. That mechanism could point to a potential treatment for aging, along with new therapies for Alzheimer’s disease and other conditions caused by protein misfolding.

In addition to clams, Austad studies a tiny freshwater creature called a hydra, which scientists thought was immortal, until they found one particular species of hydra that begins to age rapidly under the right combination of environmental conditions. These kinds of studies are a way to quickly identify genes that could be targets for new drugs to keep people healthier longer. One particularly intriguing lead being followed by Austad and other researchers worldwide is the drug rapamycin, which is FDA-approved to prevent rejection after organ transplants. A series of studies in yeast, worms, and mice have shown that rapamycin can extend lifespan as well.

According to Austad, rapamycin has “almost miraculous” effects against aging in mice. It prevents cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and other diseases. His lab is working to understand how administering rapamycin at different points in an animal’s life affects the aging process.