Aging and muscle loss targets for new OMRF researcher

Why did Holly Van Remmen, Ph.D., decide to leave San Antonio and come to OMRF?

“Because Luke Szweda is a pest,” she said, smiling.

Szweda, Ph.D., the program chair of the Free Radical Biology and Aging Research Program at OMRF, first approached Van Remmen about coming to the foundation three years ago.

“I was pretty happy at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center in San Antonio, but when he asked, it got me thinking,” she said. After years there as a professor, she found herself with more administrative duties and less time for research.

And research—specifically studying how aging is related to oxidative stress in cells—is the fun part, she said.

“Everything came together on a personal and professional level and it just felt right to make the move,” she said.

Van Remmen said she’s accustomed to collaborating with other researchers, and when she visited OMRF, she found a welcoming, collegial group. She was also impressed with state-of-the-art facilities within the foundation that will provide technical assistance to help advance her studies.

“In some ways, joining OMRF is an opportunity to refine my research direction and take advantage of the expertise that’s here,” she said. “It’s really energized my work. I look around and I see people with different ideas who are eager to help me ask new questions and find new answers.”

Szweda said he took his time recruiting Van Remmen because she is a top scientist in the field of aging.

“She’s a rock star at the peak of her career.” he said. “Her research experience and scientific expertise in neuromuscular disorders that so profoundly affect the aging population will help the program’s mission to enhance the quality of life for the elderly. Collaborations that ensue will surely enhance ongoing research in each laboratory within the program.”

At the foundation and as a Veterans Affairs investigator, Van Remmen is interested in the role of oxidative stress in the loss of vital muscle as we age and how that could relate to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS.

Each cell is a like a tiny city, and the mitochondria is the city’s power plant. As the cell processes oxygen for power, the mitochondria emit free radicals—fragments of oxygen. Over time, this free radical “pollution” can build up and cause oxidative stress.

While her previous research seems to show that altering oxidative stress does not extend lifespans, Van Remmen thinks it is a major factor in age-related diseases. By understanding how oxidative stress affects motor neurons—cells in the central nervous system that control muscles—they might be able to find ways to delay or prevent the progression of diseases including ALS and sarcopenia.

“It’s not just about extending the lifespan,” she said. “What we need to do is find a way to extend the healthspan—the amount of time we can live healthy and productive lives.”