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Release: Sept. 16, 2002

UI Professor Wins $2.2 Million NIH Grant To Study Aging Issues

Kevin Kregel, a professor of exercise science in the University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, has been awarded a $2.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to support ongoing studies into the effects of stress on aging cells. He and his team of physiologists will investigate why aged organisms have a reduced ability to cope with physiological challenges such as excessive body temperature, infection and chemical imbalances.

As humans age, many aspects of life become more difficult—flexibility decreases, recovery from injuries and disease is slower, hearing and vision may not be as sharp, and the list goes on. The same is true on a microscopic level with the cells that make up the human body. As humans age, cells' ability to withstand stress decreases, leading to breakdowns that leave the body susceptible to a host of maladies, including infections, organ damage, disease development and even death.

Kregel and his team will examine which aspects of cellular function are diminished or lost during aging. Specifically, they will study the effects of oxidative stress. This is a harmful condition that occurs when there is an excess of free radicals, which are highly reactive molecules derived from cells' use of oxygen. Once formed inside a cell, free radicals can damage any compound they encounter, including proteins, lipids (fats), and DNA. An excess of free radicals has been connected with many diseases associated with aging, including Alzheimer's and Parkinson's Diseases, cancer, and diabetes, as well as conditions such as macular degeneration, atherosclerosis and sepsis.

Kregel said he hopes to discover why strategies -- such as antioxidants inside cells -- that allow a younger organism to limit and repair damage attributed to oxidative stress are impaired with advancing age. If these functions can be isolated he said, it may be possible to develop therapies to mimic the process, enabling older cells to function properly and allowing the body to protect itself from disease. He said research like this is vital to understanding how to care for Iowa's aging population.

"The demographics of Iowa are such that aging research should be a critical thrust," Kregel said. "Clearly the state's population can benefit from our efforts to advance knowledge of what happens in the aging process, both at basic science and clinical levels."

Kregel's research team includes Hannah Zhang, a research scientist in the Department of Exercise Science; Larry Oberley and Garry Buettner of the Free Radical and Radiation Biology Program in the UI Carver College of Medicine; and Terry Oberley of the University of Wisconsin at Madison.