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UPMC Researchers Develop Biomarkers That Identify Biological Age While Also Predicting Disease Risk

Scientists turned to metabolomics to find cause of biological aging and release index of 25 metabolites that predict healthy and rapid agers

Researchers at the University of Pittsburg Medical Center and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine have identified biomarkers in human blood which appear to affect biological aging (aka, senescence). Since biological aging is connected to a person’s overall condition, further research and studies confirming UPMC’s findings will likely lead to a new panel of tests clinical laboratories can run to support physicians’ assessment of their patients’ health.

UPMC’s research “points to pathways and compounds that may underlie biological age, shedding light on why people age differently and suggesting novel targets for interventions that could slow aging and promote health span, the length of time a person is healthy,” according to a UPMC news release.

“We decided to look at metabolites because they’re very dynamic,” Aditi Gurkar, PhD, the study’s senior author, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Gurkar is Assistant Professor of Medicine, Division of Geriatric Medicine, Aging Institute at the University of Pittsburg. “They can change because of the diet, they can change because of exercise, they can change because of lifestyle changes like smoking,” she added.

The scientists identified 25 metabolites that “showed clear differences” in the metabolomes of both healthy and rapid agers. Based on those findings, the researchers developed the Healthy Aging Metabolic (HAM) Index, a panel of metabolites that predicted healthy agers regardless of gender or race.

The researchers published their findings in the journal Aging Cell titled, “A Molecular Index for Biological Age Identified from the Metabolome and Senescence-associated Secretome in Humans.”

“Age is more than just a number,” said Aditi Gurkar, PhD (above), Assistant Professor of Geriatric Medicine at University of Pittsburg School of Medicine and the study’s senior author in a news release. “Imagine two people aged 65: One rides a bike to work and goes skiing on the weekends and the other can’t climb a flight of stairs. They have the same chronological age, but very different biological ages. Why do these two people age differently? This question drives my research.” Gurkar’s research may one day lead to new clinical laboratory tests physicians will order when evaluating their patients’ health. (Photo copyright: University of Pittsburg.)

Clear Differences in Metabolites

According to the National Cancer Institute, a metabolite is a “substance made or used when the body breaks down food, drugs, or chemicals, or its own tissue (for example, fat or muscle tissue). This process, called metabolism, makes energy and the materials needed for growth, reproduction, and maintaining health. It also helps get rid of toxic substances.”

The UPMC researchers used metabolomics—the study of chemical process in the body that involves metabolites, other processes, and biproducts of cell metabolism—to create a “molecular fingerprint” of blood drawn from individuals in two separate study groups.

They included:

  • People over age 75 able to walk a flight of stairs or walk for 15 minutes without a break, and
  • People, age 65 to 75, who needed to rest during stair climbing and walk challenges.

The researchers found “clear differences” in the metabolomes of healthy agers as compared to rapid agers, suggesting that “metabolites in the blood could reflect biological age,” according to the UPMC news release.

“Other studies have looked at genetics to measure biological aging, but genes are very static. The genes you’re born with are the genes you die with,” said Gurkar in the news release.

Past studies on aging have explored other markers of biological age such as low grade-inflammation, muscle mass, and physical strength. But those markers fell short in “representing complexity of biological aging,” the UPMC study authors wrote in Aging Cell.

“One potential advantage of metabolomics over other ‘omic’ approaches is that metabolites are the final downstream products, and changes are closely related to the immediate (path) physiologic state of an individual,” they added.

The researchers used an artificial intelligence (AI) model that could identify “potential drivers of biological traits” and found three metabolites “that were most likely to promote healthy aging or drive rapid aging. In future research, they plan to delve into how these metabolites, and the molecular pathways that produce them, contribute to biological aging and explore interventions that could slow this process,” the new release noted.

“While it’s great that we can predict biological aging in older adults, what would be even more exciting is a blood test that, for example, can tell someone who’s 35 that they have a biological age more like a 45-year-old,” Gurkar said. “That person could then think about changing aspects of their lifestyle early—whether that’s improving their sleep, diet or exercise regime—to hopefully reverse their biological age.”

Looking Ahead

The UPMC scientists plan more studies to explore metabolites that promote healthy aging and rapid aging, and interventions to slow disease progression.

It’s possible that the blood-based HAM Index may one day become a diagnostic tool physicians and clinical laboratories use to aid monitoring of chronic diseases. As a commonly ordered blood test, it could help people find out biological age and make necessary lifestyle changes to improve their health and longevity.

With the incidence of chronic disease a major problem in the US and other developed countries, a useful diagnostic and monitoring tool like HAM could become a commonly ordered diagnostic procedure. In turn, that would allow clinical laboratories to track the same patient over many years, with the ability to use multi-year lab test data to flag patients whose biomarkers are changing in the wrong direction—thus enabling physicians to be proactive in treating their patients.

—Donna Marie Pocius

Related Information:

New Study Reveals Molecular Fingerprint of Biological Aging

Blood Test Could Reveal Your Biological Age and Predict Disease Risk

A Molecular Index for Biological Age Identified from the Metabolome and Senescence-associated Secretome in Humans

Family History with Cancer Led Professor into “Healthy Aging” Research

Zombie Cells, Aging and Health

Pitt Researcher Uncovers Cellular Signs of Healthy Aging

True Biological Age is Hidden in Several Newly Identified Blood Markers

The Senescence-associated Secretome as An Indicator of Age and Medical Risk