March 2, 2020 | Katherine Adams
University of Houston-Clear Lake Assistant Professor of Biology and Biotechnology Brian M. Wasko and his research assistant Kathleen Helget, have co-authored an article on the molecular mechanisms of aging, published in January in the scientific journal GeroScience.
“There’s a significant rationale for research in geroscience, or the study of aging,” Wasko said. “Most of the diseases that people suffer from in developed countries are associated with aging. Cardiovascular disease and cancer are the major causes of death, and the risk of getting these diseases increases exponentially with age. Instead of treating just cancer or just Alzheimer’s, we could potentially target the aging process itself, and perhaps reduce the incidence or delay the onset of all or many of these age-associated diseases simultaneously.”
Wasko said that they used simple baker’s yeast to study aging. “Surprisingly, there are at least some ways that yeast cells age similarly to mammalian cells. If you change a gene in yeast and it lives longer, and you change the same gene in worms and flies and they also live longer, then you might be able to modulate the same gene in humans to get them to live longer,” he said. “Because of the simplicity of yeast, we can study aging quickly, and yet potentially learn insights about the aging process that may be similar in our cells.”
A central research question they sought to answer is what is the potential sequence of failure during aging. “Is it random? What fails first during aging, and why? From that, our study found that one of the earliest problems is with the recycling center of the cell. Normally, it’s acidic, but during the aging process, it loses its acidity, which leads to problems with iron,” he said.
Helget, who received her bachelor of arts in English from another university in 2013, came to UH-Clear Lake to complete the requirements needed to apply to medical school. She said she began working in Dr. Wasko’s lab in October 2018.
“My contribution was to figure out the effect of iron on mutant cells, so I did a viability spot-test, which means I put yeast into an environment to see if it would grow,” she said. “It did grow along with the iron. That further solidifies our research, which showed that iron rescues a mutant cell. If you have a cell that loses its acidity, an increase in iron will help rescue it.”
She added that she’s completed her pre-med prerequisites and that her work in his lab had made a significant impact on her medical school applications. “Letting medical schools know that my research had been published got me three interviews at out-of-state medical schools that I am considering,” she said. “I believe they paid more attention to me because of this. They like to see you that you are doing research and that you are published.”
Because her undergraduate degree was in English, she felt that she needed a lot of extra mentoring. “I didn’t have the basic skills but I got them from working in this lab and through Dr. Wasko mentoring me,” she said. “Working in this lab has been a differentiator for me. I have not decided which medical school I’d like to go to, but I know that I have options and I feel my training here has made me an attractive applicant.”
Some of the research published in their article, Wasko said, was conducted in his lab, but it was also a collaborative effort. “In terms of real-world applications for our research, often the first step is just figuring things out. The applications come later,” he said. “First we create the foundation, then we apply the knowledge. We are understanding the basic biology of aging before intervening. If what we see in yeast cells is also seen in human cells, it gives us a point of potential intervention early in the aging process.”
Read more about UHCL’s Biology and Biotechnology program.