As modern medicine keeps us alive for longer, there’s one challenge society hasn’t yet been able to overcome – ageing.
But Associate Professor Nigel Turner’s research could change that, by figuring out how to manipulate the pathway that provides our cells with energy. In the process, he might also find a way to overcome a host of conditions, from obesity and diabetes, to cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.
Turner’s work focuses on the mitochondria, which are the powerhouses of the cell, responsible for metabolising nutrients and producing the energy needed to grow and survive.
In a healthy body, this process works to burn off food and keep our cells fuelled, but as a result of certain diseases or just regular old age, this cellular metabolism can get out of whack.
“Problems with mitochondria are present in Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, cancer, diabetes, heart disease. We’re trying to work out how cellular metabolism is regulated and what goes wrong in certain diseases,” explains Turner. “We’re particularly interested in obesity and diabetes, which is an obvious place to start when you’re looking at metabolism.”
With his team at the UNSW School of Medical Sciences, Turner is looking at whether there’s a way mitochondrial function can be tweaked to make them burn off excess calories, to help improve insulin sensitivity. They’re currently experimenting with the process in mice fed diets high in fat.
“When you increase their caloric intake, mitochondrial capacity automatically up-regulates a little bit in many organs,” says Turner. “What we’re trying to do is see if there’s a way we can enhance that response. We want to get mitochondria in a state where they can burn calories more efficiently, and this might help us to treat obesity.”
With obesity a major risk factor for other conditions, the research could greatly help to reduce the disease burden on populations around the world – about two-thirds of Australians are now overweight or obese, and the statistics are similar in the US and the UK.
But the benefits don’t end at weight loss. Mitochondria also produce toxic by-products that build up in the nervous system in diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, while in cancer, there is a complete rewiring of cellular metabolism to fuel the out-of-control growth of tumours.
By working out how to stop mitochondrial function going awry, Turner could effectively find a way to avoid, or at least stave off, some of the most serious side effects of ageing.
“Most of our work is aimed at trying to find ways in which we can either prevent the decline in mitochondria that might occur during old age, or that may or may not be brought on by obesity,” he explains. “If we could understand the underlying processes in mitochondria and work out how to tweak it, there would be so many benefits.”