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Aging Gracefully with the Help of Marmosets

Corrina Ross
Associate Professor Corrina Ross, Ph.D.

Marmosets housed at the Southwest National Primate Research Center on the Texas Biomed campus are turning out to be impressive models for research in the area of human aging. In an article in the American Journal of Primatology, Associate Professor Corinna Ross, Ph.D., and Professor Suzette Tardif, Ph.D., are part of a group of researchers publishing the results of a study of metabolic pathways that could be future targets for health and lifespan-extending interventions.

Earlier this decade, marmosets were first described as a good nonhuman primate model of aging because they have relatively short lifespans and share age-related morbidities that are similar to people. “For these reasons, the marmoset has the potential to be an ideal animal model to understand the genetic and environmental factors that influence aging and longevity,” the authors of the study write.

Having an accurate animal model that is representative of aging in humans is crucial because it allows scientists to learn more about the aging process while having the control to “tease out environmental factors” that could influence aging, Dr. Ross said.

She added, “I’ve been focused on animal models foraging for the past 10 years because you can control a lot of environmental factors—not everything—but at least I know what the marmosets ate yesterday.”

Marmoset photo courtesy Kathy West Studios

The study was conducted on adult marmosets (ages 2-17) that had been transferred to the Southwest National Primate Research Center from the New England Primate Center in 2015. Blood samples were taken from the animals before and after themove. Then, two later, animal deaths were evaluated.Researchers found that low levels of tryptophan metabolism were found to be associated with an increased risk of death in a two-year follow-up with these animals. Tryptophan is an amino acid that is linked to the production of serotonin, the chemical in the brain that contributes to feelings of happiness. Scientists aren’t yet sure whether serotonin influences aging, but there is a link between levels of tryptophan and health, Ross said.

The study also found that the metabolism of two other amino acids, betaine and methionine, were associated with aging regardless of environmental factors, such as stress. The results of the study suggest that the levels of metabolism of these three amino acids could be potential biomarkers for aging and related health issues.

This is “one of the first studies to discover metabo-lites whose levels predict future mortality over a several year time span,” the authors write.

What will knowing these biomarkers do?

As everyone knows, the number one risk factor for illness and death in the developed world is age. As we celebrate each birthday, we cannot escape aging’s effects. Our risk of Alzheimer’s and cardiovascular disease, cancer, and type II diabetes increases with each candle we add to the birthday cake. However, marmosets may help scientists understand the subtleties of physiological aging and find ways to fight the negative health consequences.

“In the future, an aging intervention could include targeting these amino acid levels to slow aging and the risk of disease,” Dr. Ross said.

In other words, studies such as this one could put a whole new meaning to aging gracefully.