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AFAR Grantee Spotlight Interview

Grantee Spotlight Interview

Juan Pablo Palavicini, PhD

Assistant Professor, UT Health San Antonio

Glenn Foundation for Medical Research and AFAR Grants for Junior Faculty - 2022

What inspired you to pursue aging research?

Early on, during my undergraduate studies, I became fascinated by the extremely intricate and heavily regulated cellular system. So much that I decided to leave my home country, Costa Rica, to pursue a PhD in biochemistry. During my postdoctoral studies at Torrey Pines Institute for Molecular Studies and at Sanford Burnhan Prebys Medical Discovery Institute, I became interested in understanding the molecular mechanisms that drive major age-related diseases, including Alzheimer’s and diabetes. More recently, I found my dream niche in geroscience: the intersection of basic aging biology, chronic disease, and health. As a biochemist geek, I cannot think of anything more exciting than understanding the molecular mechanisms behind aging, while searching for interventions that can make us live healthier and longer.

In your view, what does AFAR mean to the field, and what does it mean for you to receive an AFAR grant now?

It is not an overstatement to say that AFAR is the prime catalyst of the aging field in the US. It is hard to find a leading investigator in the field of geroscience that has not received startup funds from AFAR. I am honored to be a part of this select list of investigators that have benefited from the leading not-for-profit organization supporting biomedical aging research. When I heard the news that my project was funded, I literally cried of happiness. Biomedical research is an extremely competitive and tough business, even more so for those of us coming from developing countries (Costa Rica in my case) with a humble scientific pedigree. To me personally, receiving this grant is a realization that passion and hard work eventually do pay off, particularly when you sparkle a little bit of creativity. I feel like I got a precious train ticket to Geroland, the place where geroscientists are figuring out how we can live a longer and healthier life!

What is exciting about your research’s potential impact?

Imagine celebrating your 100th birthday while still exhibiting cognitive function that is comparable to that of an average middle-aged individual, imagine having one or even two extra decades of healthy life to explore this world, imagine witnessing a whole century of history unfold before your eyes, imagine seeing your great-grandchildren become adults and meeting your great-great-grandchildren; not because you are one genetically privileged individual (currently, it is estimated that ~6 people in 10,000 become centenarians), but rather because of geroscience-based therapies that will enable not only you, but also your significant other, your contemporary cousins and friends, and your whole generation live a healthier and longer life. This is the impact that the geroscience field as a whole, including my research, could have on humanity! My laboratory is in the process of discovering specific molecules, lipids in particular, that are altered with age and are involved with the aging process. Our hypothesis is that modulation of specific lipids associated with the biology of aging is one of the best strategies to extend healthspan and lifespan. Preliminary studies from my laboratory suggest that this strategy is not just feasible, but also very effective, at least in animal models, including mammals.

How would you describe your research to a non-scientist?

My laboratory studies the molecular mechanisms and pathways that drive the aging process. Specifically, my research focuses on lipids, one of the major and most diverse constituents of cells that are frequently overlooked and underrated, in part due to the technical difficulties of quantifying them. I take advantage of a state-of-the-art technology, developed by my former mentor, Dr. Xianlin Han, that enables accurate detection of a large number of lipid molecules. During the last several years, I have been searching for lipids that are universally affected by the aging process; in other words, lipids whose levels change with age in a consistent manner in multiple organs and animal models. In addition, I have also been studying lipids in long-lived animal models and in animals treated with pro-longevity therapies. Our results so far are extremely promising, we have found a number of novel lipid classes that are tightly associated with the aging process, and we have multiple lines of evidence that at least one of these lipid classes, known as ceramides, seems to be a novel driver of aging. My AFAR-funded project is testing, among other things, if ceramide-lowering therapies extend healthspan and lifespan in mice.

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