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Aging and Cancer: Two Sides of Same Coin

Conquest - Fall 2011

Ronald DePinho, M.D., feels right at home in the lab.
Photo: F. Carter Smith

DePinho Focuses on Molecular Basis of Link

By Sandi Stromberg

Although presidential responsibilities take most of his time, Ronald DePinho, M.D., continues his research efforts to bring scientific knowledge to cancer patient care.

However, he’s narrowed his focus to the areas in which he’s most interested: the intersection between aging and cancer, and the work on two Program Project (P01) grants from the National Cancer Institute, which he has transferred to MD Anderson.

“Advancing age is the most important risk factor for the development of cancer,” says DePinho, professor in the Department of Cancer Biology. “We’re trying to understand the molecular basis of the intimate link between cancer and aging which, I believe, holds important implications for prevention.”

Understanding aging, he says, might give investigators some insight into how to quell that risk, establish what the core pathways are, and how they might be commandeered to cause age-related illnesses such as cancer, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and heart disease.

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The P01 grants involve basic, translational and clinical science and focus on glioblastoma and pancreas cancer. For each of these, he and his talented team of researchers, some of whom have followed him to MD Anderson, are developing mouse models to understand how genes work, discover new genes, conduct translational activities and develop drugs or diagnostics that might help treat the disease.

“I’m most interested in the patho-biology of disease so that we understand things at the genetic, cellular and organ-system level and really understand a particular cancer type,” he says. “There’s no place better to translate science than at 
MD Anderson.”

Asking the question

DePinho says scientists must always ask themselves the question: “I have this knowledge. How can I use it to influence the human condition?”

“For example, by studying the pathway of a damaged telomere that causes aging, we could establish proof of principle to reverse that process. At the time, we didn’t think we could reverse it, but maybe slow it down,” he says.

“So, we performed an experiment to toggle the telomerase on and off and fix the problem that occurs during natural aging, and we achieved a striking reversal of aging. That’s an example of always asking the question.

“So much of what we do is related to aging and regenerative medicine. Cancer and aging are really two sides of the same coin. The same pathways get commandeered in both cases. In one case, it causes aging. In the other, cancer.”

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