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SIU researcher finds gene linked to aging

By Keturah Tanner

A research scientist at the School of Medicine in Springfield has identified a potential aging gene.

Dr. Rong Yuan, assistant professor in the Department of Internal Medicine, is the principal investigator for two federal grant projects to study aging genes. The National Institute on Aging (NIA), a division of the National Institute of Health, funds the project.

Barbara Cire, senior public affairs specialist for the NIA, said the first grant has a budget for $73,750 and is scheduled for two years. This project, which began May 1, 2014, will study female sexual maturation. The second grant, Cire said, was awarded Dec. 1, 2013 and is scheduled for five years with a budget for $137, 511. This project will study the gene known as nuclear receptor interacting protein 1 (NRIP1).

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“Female sexual maturation is an important life history trait that is related to aging-related diseases such as osteoporosis, breast and ovarian cancer, stroke mortality, coronary heart disease, as well as biological/pathological processes of aging,” Cire said.

Yuan’s research team is studying how this gene is linked to aging and female sexual maturation.

“We are making progresses in both projects. One paper is under preparation,” he said. “I hope we could find more candidate genes that regulate aging and cancer. For the existing candidates, we are testing their roles in aging and cancer.”

This study has been using genetic data from animal models, such as mice, to test for specific genes linked to aging and longevity.

“Human genetics are very similar to mice,” Yuan said. “We used mice to try to understand genetic factors in longevity and aging in humans.”

His research identified developmental traits that are connected to longevity in mice. These traits and the genes associated with the aging process translate over to human traits.

When NRIP1 is depressed, it could increase insulin sensitivity and enhance resistance to obesity and diabetes.

“The genes that control female sexual maturation and its relationship to lifespan and related diseases are not well understood,” Cire said.

Because of the lack of understanding, the NIA awarded these two grants to Yuan’s team for its research.

“In our research, we are trying to understand what the genetic factors are and we try to provide a new approach to studying the aging genes,” Yuan said.

The research is focused on slowing aging processes, which leads to slowing down the increasing rate of mortality during the aging process.

“I think we have found our new approach and we have very promising candidates,” he said.

Dr. Karen Hale, assistant professor for obstetrics and gynecology for the School of Medicine, is also looking to genetics for answers in ovarian cancer.

“Every type of cancer benefits from a different approach to treatment,” Hale said. “If we can get a genetic analysis of that cancer, then that tumor can be targeted specifically.”

Yuan and his research team have considered the effect this study will have on breast and ovarian cancer. However, Yuan said his team is not yet ready to release their considerations for cancer effects.

He joined SIU’s faculty in 2012. He received his medical degree and doctorate from Shanghai Second Medical University in China in 2000. He previously completed his bachelor’s degree in medicine in 1993 and master’s degree in surgery in 1997 from Chinese Southeast University in Nanjing, China.

Yuan was a plastic surgeon in China and many of his patients wanted to reduce the signs of aging. When he came to the United States, Yuan had to chance to seek a deeper solution for aging.

“When I came here I had the chance to study genetics. Since aging is genetically controlled, I can see how genetics can increase longevity,” Yuan said.

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