New aging institute will leverage intellectual resources

New Bakar Aging Research Institute in San Francisco is an “unparalleled opportunity” for geroscience; its new Director, Dr Leanne Jones, explains why.

Recently we covered the launch of Bakar Aging Research Institute (BARI); part of UC San Francisco, BARI is a scientific community that aims to translate breakthroughs in aging research across many disciplines into new approaches and treatments that help people remain healthy and vibrant in later life.

Longevity.Technology: BARI is headed up by Leanne Jones, PhD, who joined UCSF from UCLA to serve as director and professor in the Department of Anatomy, with a joint appointment in the Department of Medicine’s Division of Geriatrics. Jones described starting a new institute at UCSF focused on aging as an “unparalleled opportunity”, so we were delighted to spend some time with her finding out more about her plans for BARI and her views on the science of aging.

What originally started out as a bringing together of people who are working on the biology of how and why we age quickly morphed into a much more exciting challenge once Jones realised the extent of resources at UCSF, both intellectual and practical, and in terms of expertise.

“When I walked in, I saw that there was a much larger opportunity,” Dr Jones explains. “Bringing together all of the excellent scientists and clinicians working on questions related to cell biology of aging, how that relates to diseases of aging and how best to serve older adults in the community is what will make the most impact.”

From scientists focused on a specific pathway to those observing demographic trends, BARI is working on the existing challenge of aging; a challenge that is, Jones says, going to become even more important in the next 10 to 20 years. The range of research areas related to aging represented at UCSF brings its own challenges to the table.

“…Coming together on this common mission of trying to understand how we age … leading to older adults who are more independent and thriving.”

“Understanding the different languages of the research groups is key,” Dr Jones explains. “From working on the cellular level in the lab to the unsung heroes, the geriatricians working with older adults, we’re all on the journey together. Moving forward is really going to take everyone communicating back and forth, and really coming together on this common mission of trying to understand how we age in order to create protocols and interventions for improving that process and, ultimately, leading to older adults who are more independent and thriving.”

For example, Dr Jones says one of the first lessons she has learned is to be aware of ageism. “There is a notion that if you’re old, that is less than, and if you are old and sick, that is even worse,” she says. “Of course, that’s nonsense, but the bias is out there. It’s important to make sure that everyone is able to understand each other’s perspectives and move forward to try ultimately to create a healthier path.”

Jones will be helped in this by UCSF neuroscientist Saul Villeda, PhD, Assistant Professor of Anatomy, who will serve as Associate Director of BARI. Villeda’s 2020 study demonstrated how exercise prompts the liver to produce an enzyme that promotes better cognitive function and helps prevent neurodegenerative decline. Jones and Villeda’s complementary expertise will help guide the Institute’s long-term vision.

“…In terms of the biotech and pharma environment,, there are a number of companies doing really exciting work in the aging space..”

The Bay Area is, Dr Jones feels, uniquely-placed to tackle aging. “Berkeley, Stanford, The Buck Institute, UCSF – it’s an incredible hub and I’m keen to develop those relationships,” she explains. “At UCSF we have world-class basic sciences married with top-notch clinical expertise in a public university. It’s public-facing and the mission to serve the public is very much front and centre.

“It will be really interesting to be able to use the area’s diverse community to do clinical studies and clinical trials. And in terms of the biotech and pharma environment here as well, there are a number of companies doing really exciting work in the aging space. BARI will be working to be on their radar, and sharing data and information with the biotech communities.”

Being in the Bay Area at this point in time to study aging is, for Dr Jones “a dream come true.” One of her goals is to integrate studies and collaboration across all of the UCSF campuses. In the first instance, Jones is doing her research to define a niche for the Bakar Aging Research Institute and determine where it can make the most impact, nationally and internationally, with respect to aging and geroscience.

“It’s about using every single resource you have available, reaching out to tech companies who have expertise in developing small molecules for a whole host of diseases, which might not even be focused on aging,” says Jones. “It’s about communication and leveraging the infrastructure already in place.

Read more in part 2 of this interview, in which Dr Jones discusses the future of aging research at the Bakar Institute.

Images courtesy of the Bakar Aging Research Institute (BARI)