Northwestern University Study Shares News Insights into Aging Guided by Transcriptome, Gene Length Imbalance

Findings could lead to deeper understanding of why we age, and to medical laboratory tests and treatments to slow or even reverse aging

Can humans control aging by keeping their genes long and balanced? Researchers at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, believe it may be possible. They have unveiled a “previously unknown mechanism” behind aging that could lead to medical interventions to slow or even reverse aging, according to a Northwestern news release.

Should additional studies validate these early findings, this line of testing may become a new service clinical laboratories could offer to referring physicians and patients. It would expand the test menu with assays that deliver value in diagnosing the aging state of a patient, and which identify the parts of the transcriptome that are undergoing the most alterations that reduce lifespan.

It may also provide insights into how treatments and therapies could be implemented by physicians to address aging.

The Northwestern University scientists published their findings in the journal Nature Aging title, “Aging Is Associated with a Systemic Length-Associated Transcriptome Imbalance.”

“I find it very elegant that a single, relatively concise principle seems to account for nearly all of the changes in activity of genes that happen in animals as they change,” Thomas Stoeger, PhD, postdoctoral scholar in the Amaral Lab who led the study, told GEN. Clinical laboratories involved in omics research may soon have new anti-aging diagnostic tests to perform. (Photo copyright: Amaral Lab.)

Possible ‘New Instrument’ for Biological Testing

Researchers found clues to aging in the length of genes. A gene transcript length reveals “molecular-level changes” during aging: longer genes relate to longer lifespans and shorter genes suggest shorter lives, GEN summarized.

The phenomenon the researchers uncovered—which they dubbed transcriptome imbalance—was “near universal” in the tissues they analyzed (blood, muscle, bone, and organs) from both humans and animals, Northwestern said. 

According to the National Human Genome Research Institute fact sheet, a transcriptome is “a collection of all the gene readouts (aka, transcript) present in a cell” shedding light on gene activity or expression.

The Northwestern study suggests “systems-level” changes are responsible for aging—a different view than traditional biology’s approach to analyzing the effects of single genes.

“We have been primarily focusing on a small number of genes, thinking that a few genes would explain disease,” said Luis Amaral, PhD, Senior Author of the Study and Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Northwestern, in the news release.

“So, maybe we were not focused on the right thing before. Now that we have this new understanding, it’s like having a new instrument. It’s like Galileo with a telescope, looking at space. Looking at gene activity through this new lens will enable us to see biological phenomena differently,” Amaral added.

In their Nature Aging paper, Amaral and his colleagues wrote, “We hypothesize that aging is associated with a phenomenon that affects the transcriptome in a subtle but global manner that goes unnoticed when focusing on the changes in expression of individual genes.

“We show that transcript length alone explains most transcriptional changes observed with aging in mice and humans,” they continued.

Researchers Turn to AI, RNA Sequencing

According to their published study, the Northwestern University scientists used large datasets, artificial intelligence (AI), and RNA (ribonucleic acid) sequencing in their analysis of tissue derived from:

  • Humans (men and women), age 30 to 49, 50 to 69, and 70 years and older. 
  • Mice, age four months to 24 months.
  • Rats, age six to 24 months.
  • Killifish, age five weeks to 39 weeks.

Scientific American reported the following study findings:

  • In tissues studied, older animals’ long transcripts were not as “abundant” as short transcripts, creating “imbalance.”
  • “Imbalance” likely prohibited the researchers’ discovery of a “specific set of genes” changing.
  • As animals aged, shorter genes “appeared to become more active” than longer genes.
  • In humans, the top 5% of genes with the shortest transcripts “included many linked to shorter life spans such as those involved in maintaining the length of telomeres.”
  • Conversely, the researchers’ review of the leading 5% of genes in humans with the longest transcripts found an association with long lives.
  • Antiaging drugs—rapamycin (aka, sirolimus) and resveratrol—were linked to an increase in long-gene transcripts.

“The changes in the activity of genes are very, very small, and these small changes involve thousands of genes. We found this change was consistent across different tissues and in different animals. We found it almost everywhere,” Thomas Stoeger, PhD, postdoctoral scholar in the Amaral Lab who led the study, told GEN.

In their paper, the Northwestern scientists noted implications for creation of healthcare interventions.

“We believe that understanding the direction of causality between other age-dependent cellular and transcriptomic changes and length-associated transcriptome imbalance could open novel research directions for antiaging interventions,” they wrote.

Other ‘Omics’ Studies

Dark Daily has previously reported on transcriptomics studies, along with research into the other “omics,” including metabolomics, proteomics, and genomics.

In “Spatial Transcriptomics Provide a New and Innovative Way to Analyze Tissue Biology, May Have Value in Surgical Pathology,” we explored how newly combined digital pathology, artificial intelligence (AI), and omics technologies are providing anatomic pathologists and medical laboratory scientists with powerful diagnostic tools.

In “Swiss Researchers Develop a Multi-omic Tumor Profiler to Inform Clinical Decision Support and Guide Precision Medicine Therapy for Cancer Patients,” we looked at how new biomarkers for cancer therapies derived from the research could usher in superior clinical laboratory diagnostics that identify a patient’s suitability for personalized drug therapies and treatments.

And in “Human Salivary Proteome Wiki Developed at University of Buffalo May Provide Biomarkers for New Diagnostic Tools and Medical Laboratory Tests,” we covered how proteins in human saliva make up its proteome and may be the key to new, precision medicine diagnostics that would give clinical pathologists new capabilities to identify disease.

Fountain of Youth

While more research is needed to validate its findings, the Northwestern study is compelling as it addresses a new area of transcriptome knowledge. This is another example of researchers cracking open human and animal genomes and gaining new insights into the processes supporting life.

For clinical laboratories and pathologists, diagnostic testing to reverse aging and guide the effectiveness of therapies may one day be possible—kind of like science’s take on the mythical Fountain of Youth.  

—Donna Marie Pocius

Related Information:

Aging Is Driven by Unbalanced Genes

Aging Linked to Gene Length Imbalance and Shift Towards Shorter Genes

NIH: Transcriptome Fact Sheet

Aging Is Associated with a Systemic Length-Associated Transcriptome Imbalance

Aging Is Linked to More Activity in Short Genes than in Long Genes

Spatial Transcriptomics Provide a New and Innovative Way to Analyze Tissue Biology, May Have Value in Surgical Pathology

Swiss Researchers Develop a Multi-omic Tumor Profiler to Inform Clinical Decision Support and Guide Precision Medicine Therapy for Cancer Patients

Human Salivary Proteome Wiki Developed at University of Buffalo May Provide Biomarkers for New Diagnostic Tools and Medical Laboratory Tests

Congress Holds Off on Enabling FDA Regulation of Clinical Laboratory-Developed Tests

Supporters of the VALID Act say lobbying blitz by academic medical centers prevented its passage

In 2022, a bill before Congress titled the Verifying Accurate Leading-Edge IVCT Development Act (VALID Act) sought to change the current regulatory scheme for clinical laboratory-developed tests (LDTs) and in vitro clinical tests (IVCTs).

But even though the College of American Pathologists (CAP) and nine other organizations signed a December 12 stakeholder letter to leaders of key House and Senate committees urging passage of legislation that would enable some regulation of LDTs, the VALID Act was ultimately omitted from the year-end omnibus spending bill (H.R. 2617).

That may be due to pressure from organizations representing clinical laboratories and pathologists which lobbied hard against the bill.

The American Association for Clinical Chemistry (AACC), American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP), Association for Molecular Pathology (AMP), Association for Pathology Informatics, and Association of Pathology Chairs were among many signatories on a May 22 letter to leaders of the US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions that described the bill as “very flawed, problematic legislation.”

The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) also signed the letter, as did numerous medical laboratories and health systems, as well as the American Society of Hematology and the Clinical Immunology Society.

Emily Volk, MD

Responding to criticism of its stance on FDA oversight of LDTs, in a May 2022 open letter posted on the organization’s website, anatomic pathologist and CAP president Emily Volk, MD, said “we at the CAP have an honest difference of opinion with some other respected laboratory organizations. … We believe the VALID Act is the only viable piece of legislation addressing the LDT issue. … the VALID Act contains many provisions that are similar to policy the CAP has advocated for regarding the regulation of laboratory tests since 2009. Importantly, the current version includes explicit protections for pathologists and our ability to practice medicine without infringement from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).” (Photo copyright: College of American Pathologists.)

Organizations on Both Sides Brought Pressure to Bear on Legislators

“University laboratories and their representatives in Washington put on a full-court press against this,” Rep. Larry Bucshon, MD, (R-Indiana) told ProPublica. Bucshon, who is also a cardiothoracic surgeon, co-sponsored the VALID Act along with Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colorado).

The AAMC and AMP were especially influential, Bucshon told ProPublica. In addition to spending hefty sums on lobbying, AMP urged its members to contact legislators directly and provided talking points, ProPublica reported.

“The academic medical centers and big medical centers are in every state,” Bucshon said. As major employers in many locales, they have “a pretty big voice,” he added.

CAP, on the other hand, was joined in its efforts by AdvaMed, a trade association for medical technology companies, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, Association for Clinical Oncology (ASCO), Association of Black Cardiologists, Friends of Cancer Research, Heart Valve Voice US, LUNGevity Foundation, and The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Discussing CAP’s reasoning behind its support of the VALID Act in a May 26 open letter and podcast, CAP president Emily Volk, MD, said the Valid Act “creates a risk-based system of oversight utilizing three tiers—low, moderate and high risk—in order to target the attention of the FDA oversight.”

While acknowledging that it had room for improvement, she lauded the bill’s three-tier risk-based system, in which tests deemed to have the greatest risks would receive the highest level of scrutiny.

She also noted that the bill exempts existing LDTs from an FDA premarket review “unless there is a safety concern for patients.” It would also exempt “low-volume tests, modified tests, manual interpretation tests, and humanitarian tests,” she wrote.

In addition, the bill would “direct the FDA not to create regulations that are duplicative of regulation under CLIA,” she noted, and “would require the FDA to conduct public hearings on LDT oversight.”

Pros and Cons of the VALID Act

One concern raised by opponents relates to how the VALID Act addressed user fees paid by clinical laboratories to fund FDA compliance activities. But Volk wrote that any specific fees “would need to be approved by Congress in a future FDA user fee authorization bill after years of public input.”

During the May 2022 podcast, Volk also cast CAP’s support as a matter of recognizing political realities.

“We understand that support for FDA oversight of laboratory-developed tests or IVCTs is present on both sides of the aisle and in both houses of Congress,” she said. “In fact, it enjoys wide support among very influential patient advocacy groups.” These groups “are very sophisticated in their understanding of the issues with laboratory-developed tests, and they do have the ear of Congress. There are many in the laboratory community that believe the VALID Act goes too far, but I can tell you that many of these patient groups don’t believe it goes far enough and are actively pushing for even more restrictive paradigms.”

Also urging passage of the bill were former FDA commissioners Scott Gottlieb, MD, and Mark B. McClellan, MD, PhD. In a Dec. 5 opinion piece for STAT, they noted that “diagnostic technologies have undergone considerable advances in recent decades, owing to innovation in fields like genomics, proteomics, and data science.” However, they wrote, laws governing FDA oversight “have not kept pace,” placing the agency in a position of regulating tests based on where they are made—in a medical laboratory or by a manufacturer—instead of their “distinctive complexity or potential risks.”

In their May 22 letter, opponents of the legislation outlined broad areas of concern. They contended that it would create “an onerous and complex system that would radically alter the way that laboratory testing is regulated to the detriment of patient care.” And even though existing tests would be largely exempted from oversight, “the utility of these tests would diminish over time as the VALID Act puts overly restrictive constraints on how they can be modified.”

CLIA Regulation of LDTs also Under Scrutiny

The provision to avoid duplication with the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) program—which currently has some regulatory oversight of LDTs and IVCTs—is “insufficient,” opponents added, “especially when other aspects of the legislation call for requirements and activities that lead to duplicative and unnecessary regulatory burden.”

Opponents to the VALID Act also argued that the definitions of high-, medium-, and low-risk test categories lacked clarity, stating that “the newly created definition of moderate risk appears to overlap with the definition of high risk.”

The opponents also took issue with the degree of discretion that the bill grants to the US Secretary of Health and Human Services. This will create “an unpredictable regulatory process and ambiguities in the significance of the policy,” they wrote, while urging the Senate committee to “narrow the discretion so that stakeholders may better evaluate and understand the implications of this legislation.”

Decades ago, clinical laboratory researchers were allowed to develop assays in tandem with clinicians that were intended to provide accurate diagnoses, earlier detection of disease, and help guide selection of therapies. Since the 1990s, however, an industry of investor-funded laboratory companies have brought proprietary LDTs to the national market. Many recognize that this falls outside the government’s original intent for encouragement of laboratory-developed tests to begin with.

—Stephen Beale

Related Information:

The Tests Are Vital. But Congress Decided That Regulation Is Not.

Message from the CAP President on the VALID Act

Better Lab Test Standards Can Ensure Precision Medicine Is Truly Precise

Healthcare Groups Urge Congress to Pass Diagnostic Testing Reform Before Year’s End

Califf: FDA May Use Rulemaking for Diagnostics Reform If VALID Isn’t Passed

Is FDA LDT Surveillance Set to Improve as VALID Act Heads to Resolution?

Congress Needs to Update FDA’s Ability to Regulate Diagnostic Tests, Cosmetics

FDA User Fee Reauthorization: Contextualizing the VALID Act

They Trusted Their Prenatal Test. They Didn’t Know the Industry Is an Unregulated “Wild West.”

InsideHealthPolicy: Pew, AdvaMed, Others Push for VALID as Clock Ticks on Government Funding

AdvaMed Leads Letter Urging Lawmakers to Support Bipartisan Diagnostics Reform

Genomics England Increases Goal of Whole Genome Sequencing Project from 100,000 to 500,000 Sequences in Five Years

Genomic sequencing continues to benefit patients through precision medicine clinical laboratory treatments and pharmacogenomic therapies

EDITOR’S UPDATE—Jan. 26, 2022: Since publication of this news briefing, officials from Genomics England contacted us to explain the following:

  • The “five million genome sequences” was an aspirational goal mentioned by then Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Matt Hancock, MP, in an October 2, 2018, press release issued by Genomics England.
  • As of this date a spokesman for Genomics England confirmed to Dark Daily that, with the initial goal of 100,000 genomes now attained, the immediate goal is to sequence 500,000 genomes.
  • This goal was confirmed in a tweet posted by Chris Wigley, CEO at Genomics England.

In accordance with this updated input, we have revised the original headline and information in this news briefing that follows.

What better proof of progress in whole human genome screening than the announcement that the United Kingdom’s 100,000 Genome Project has not only achieved that milestone, but will now increase the goal to 500,000 whole human genomes? This should be welcome news to clinical laboratory managers, as it means their labs will be positioned as the first-line provider of genetic data in support of clinical care.

Many clinical pathologists here in the United States are aware of the 100,000 Genome Project, established by the National Health Service (NHS) in England (UK) in 2012. Genomics England’s new goal to sequence 500,000 whole human genomes is to pioneer a “lasting legacy for patients by introducing genomic sequencing into the wider healthcare system,” according to Technology Networks.

The importance of personalized medicine and of the power of precise, accurate diagnoses cannot be understated. This announcement by Genomics England will be of interest to diagnosticians worldwide, especially doctors who diagnose and treat patients with chronic and life-threatening diseases.

Building a Vast Genomics Infrastructure

Genetic sequencing launched the era of precision medicine in healthcare. Through genomics, drug therapies and personalized treatments were developed that improved outcomes for all patients, especially those suffering with cancer and other chronic diseases. And so far, the role of genomics in healthcare has only been expanding, as Dark Daily covered in numerous ebriefings.

In the US, the National Institute of Health’s (NIH’s) Human Genome Project sequenced the first whole genome in 2003. That achievement opened the door to a new era of precision medicine.

Genomics England, which is wholly owned by the Department of Health and Social Care in the United Kingdom, was formed in 2012 with the goal of sequencing 100,000 whole genomes of patients enrolled in the UK National Health Service. That goal was met in 2018, and now the NHS aspires to sequence 500,000 genomes.

Richard Scott, MD, PhD

“The last 10 years have been really exciting, as we have seen genetic data transition from being something that is useful in a small number of contexts with highly targeted tests, towards being a central part of mainstream healthcare settings,” Richard Scott, MD, PhD (above), Chief Medical Officer at Genomics England told Technology Networks. Much of the progress has found its way into clinical laboratory testing and precision medicine diagnostics. (Photo copyright: Genomics England.)

Genomics England’s initial goals included:

  • To create an ethical program based on consent,
  • To set up a genomic medicine service within the NHS to benefit patients,
  • To make new discoveries and gain insights into the use of genomics, and
  • To begin the development of a UK genomics industry.

To gain the greatest benefit from whole genome sequencing (WGS), a substantial amount of data infrastructure must exist. “The amount of data generated by WGS is quite large and you really need a system that can process the data well to achieve that vision,” said Richard Scott, MD, PhD, Chief Medical Officer at Genomics England.

In early 2020, Weka, developer of the WekaFS, a fully parallel and distributed file system, announced that it would be working with Genomics England on managing the enormous amount of genomic data. When Genomics England reached 100,000 sequenced genomes, it had already gathered 21 petabytes of data. The organization expects to have 140 petabytes by 2023, notes a Weka case study.

Putting Genomics England’s WGS Project into Action

WGS has significantly impacted the diagnosis of rare diseases. For example, Genomics England has contributed to projects that look at tuberculosis genomes to understand why the disease is sometimes resistant to certain medications. Genomic sequencing also played an enormous role in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.

Scott notes that COVID-19 provides an example of how sequencing can be used to deliver care. “We can see genomic influences on the risk of needing critical care in COVID-19 patients and in how their immune system is behaving. Looking at this data alongside other omics information, such as the expression of different protein levels, helps us to understand the disease process better,” he said.

What’s Next for Genomics Sequencing?

As the research continues and scientists begin to better understand the information revealed by sequencing, other areas of scientific study like proteomics and metabolomics are becoming more important.

“There is real potential for using multiple strands of data alongside each other, both for discovery—helping us to understand new things about diseases and how [they] affect the body—but also in terms of live healthcare,” Scott said.

Along with expanding the target of Genomics England to 500,000 genomes sequenced, the UK has published a National Genomic Strategy named Genome UK. This plan describes how the research into genomics will be used to benefit patients. “Our vision is to create the most advanced genomic healthcare ecosystem in the world, where government, the NHS, research and technology communities work together to embed the latest advances in patient care,” according to the Genome UK website.

Clinical laboratories professionals with an understanding of diagnostics will recognize WGS’ impact on the healthcare industry. By following genomic sequencing initiatives, such as those coming from Genomics England, pathologists can keep their labs ready to take advantage of new discoveries and insights that will improve outcomes for patients.

Dava Stewart

Related Information:

The 100,000 Genomes Project

Genome Sequencing in Modern Medicine: An Interview with Genomics England

WekaIO Accelerates Five Million Genomes Project at Genomics England

Genomics England Improved Scale and Performance for On-Premises Cluster

Whole Genome Sequencing Increases Rare Disorder Diagnosis by 31%

Genome UK: The Future of Healthcare

Spatial Transcriptomics Provide a New and Innovative Way to Analyze Tissue Biology, May Have Value in Surgical Pathology

Newly combined digital pathology, artificial intelligence (AI), and omics technologies are providing anatomic pathologists and medical laboratory scientists with powerful diagnostic tools

Add “spatial transcriptomics” to the growing list of “omics” that have the potential to deliver biomarkers which can be used for earlier and more accurate diagnoses of diseases and health conditions. As with other types of omics, spatial transcriptomics might be a new tool for surgical pathologists once further studies support its use in clinical care.

Oncologists and anatomic pathologists are increasingly becoming aware of the power of computer image analysis algorithms that use artificial intelligence (AI) when analyzing digital pathology images, such as whole-slide imaging (WSI), and radiology images. They also are aware that various omics, such as genomics, epigenomics, proteomics, metabolomics, metagenomics, and transcriptomics, are taking greater roles in precision medicine diagnostics as well.

Among this spectrum of omics is spatial transcriptomics, or ST for short.

Spatial Transcriptomics is a groundbreaking and powerful molecular profiling method used to measure all gene activity within a tissue sample. The technology is already leading to discoveries that are helping researchers gain valuable information about neurological diseases and breast cancer.

Marriage of Genetic Imaging and Sequencing

Spatial transcriptomics is a term used to describe a variety of methods designed to assign cell types that have been isolated and identified by messenger RNA (mRNA), to their locations in a histological section. The technology can determine subcellular localization of mRNA molecules and can quantify gene expression within anatomic pathology samples.

In “Spatial: The Next Omics Frontier,” Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News (GEN) wrote, “Spatial transcriptomics gives a rich, spatial context to gene expression. By marrying imaging and sequencing, spatial transcriptomics can map where particular transcripts exist on the tissue, indicating where particular genes are expressed.”

In an interview with Technology Networks, George Emanuel, PhD, co-founder of life-science genomics company Vizgen, said, “Spatial transcriptomic profiling provides the genomic information of single cells as they are intricately spatially organized within their native tissue environment.

“With techniques such as single-cell sequencing, researchers can learn about cell type composition; however, these techniques isolate individual cells in droplets and do not preserve the tissue structure that is a fundamental component of every biological organism,” he added.

“Direct spatial profiling the cellular composition of the tissue allows you to better understand why certain cell types are observed there and how variations in cell state might be a consequence of the unique microenvironment within the tissue,” he continued. “In this way, spatial transcriptomics allows us to measure the complexity of biological systems along the axes that are most relevant to their function.”

George Emanuel, PhD

“Although spatial genomics is a nascent field, we are already seeing broad interest among the community and excitement across a range of questions, all the way from plant biology to improving our understanding of the complex interactions of the tumor microenvironment,” George Emanuel, PhD (above), told Technology Networks. Oncologists, anatomic pathologists, and medical laboratory scientists my soon see diagnostics that take advantage of spatial genomics technologies. (Photo copyright: Vizgen.)

According to 10x Genomics, “spatial transcriptomics utilizes spotted arrays of specialized mRNA-capturing probes on the surface of glass slides. Each spot contains capture probes with a spatial barcode unique to that spot.

“When tissue is attached to the slide, the capture probes bind RNA from the adjacent point in the tissue. A reverse transcription reaction, while the tissue is still in place, generates a cDNA [complementary DNA] library that incorporates the spatial barcodes and preserves spatial information.

“Each spot contains approximately 200 million capture probes and all of the probes in an individual spot share a barcode that is specific to that spot.”

“The highly multiplexed transcriptomic readout reveals the complexity that arises from the very large number of genes in the genome, while high spatial resolution captures the exact locations where each transcript is being expressed,” Emanuel told Technology Networks.  

Spatial Transcriptomics for Breast Cancer and Neurological Diagnostics

An open-access article published in the journal Breast Cancer Research, titled, “Identification and Transfer of Spatial Transcriptomics Signatures for Cancer Diagnosis,” stated that spatial transcriptomics (ST) could successfully detect breast cancer expression signatures from annotated tissue sections.

In that paper, the authors wrote “we envision that in the coming years we will see simplification, further standardization, and reduced pricing for the ST protocol leading to extensive ST sequencing of samples of various cancer types.”

Spatial transcriptomics is also being used to research neurological conditions and neurodegenerative diseases. ST has been proven as an effective tool to hunt for marker genes for these conditions as well as help medical professionals study drug therapies for the brain.

“You can actually map out where the target is in the brain, for example, and not only the approximate location inside the organ, but also in what type of cells,” Malte Kühnemund, PhD, Director of Research and Development at 10x Genomics, told Labiotech.eu. “You actually now know what type of cells you are targeting. That’s completely new information for them and it might help them to understand side effects and so on.”

The field of spatial transcriptomics is rapidly moving and changing as it branches out into more areas of healthcare. New discoveries within ST methodologies are making it possible to combine it with other technologies, such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), which could lead to powerful new ways oncologists and anatomic pathologists diagnose disease.

“I think it’s going to be tricky for pathologists to look at that data,” Kühnemund said. “I think this will go hand in hand with the digital pathology revolution where computers are doing the analysis and they spit out an answer. That’s a lot more precise than what any doctor could possibly do.”

Spatial transcriptomics certainly is a new and innovative way to look at tissue biology. However, the technology is still in its early stages and more research is needed to validate its development and results.  

Nevertheless, this is an opportunity for companies developing artificial intelligence tools for analyzing digital pathology images to investigate how their AI technologies might be used with spatial transcriptomics to give anatomic pathologists a new and useful diagnostic tool. 

—JP Schlingman

Related Information:

What is Spatial Transcriptomics?

Spatial: The Next Omics Frontier

Spatial Transcriptomics Puts More Biology on the Map

Exploring Tissue Architecture Using Spatial Transcriptomics

Trends, Applications and Advances in Spatial Transcriptomics

Spatially Resolved Transcriptomes—Next Generation Tools for Tissue Exploration

Identification and Transfer of Spatial Transcriptomics Signatures for Cancer Diagnosis

Spatial Transcriptomics: A Window into Disease

Proteomics May Hold Key to Understanding Aging’s Role in Chronic Diseases and Be Useful as a Clinical Laboratory Test for Age-related Diseases

Researchers are discovering it’s possible to determine a person’s age based on the amount of protein in the blood, but the technology isn’t always correct

Mass spectrometry is increasingly finding its way into clinical laboratories and with it—proteomics—the study of proteins in the human body. And like the human genome, scientists are discovering that protein plays an integral part in the aging process.

This is a most interesting research finding. Might medical laboratories someday use proteomic biomarkers to help physicians gauge the aging progression in patients? Might this diagnostic capability give pathologists and laboratory leaders a new product line for direct-to-consumer testing that would be a cash-paying, fast-growing, profitable clinical laboratory testing service? If so, proteomics could be a boon to clinical laboratories worldwide.

When research into genomics was brand-new, virtually no one imagined that someday the direct-to-consumer lab testing model would offer genetic testing to the public and create a huge stream of revenue for clinical laboratories that process genetic tests. Now, research into protein and aging might point to a similar possibility for proteomics.

For example, through proteomics, researchers led by Benoit Lehallier, PhD, Biostatistician, Instructor of Neurology and Neurological Sciences, and senior author Tony Wyss-Coray, PhD, Professor of Neurology and Neurological Sciences and co-director of the Stanford Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at Stanford University in California, gained an understanding of aging that suggest intriguing possibilities for clinical laboratories.

In their study, published in Nature, titled, “Undulating Changes in Human Plasma Proteome Profiles Across the Lifespan,” the scientists stated that aging doesn’t happen in a consistent process over time, reported Science Alert.  

The Stanford researchers also found that they can accurately determine a person’s age based on the levels of certain proteins in his or her blood.

Additionally, the study of proteomics may finally explain why blood from young people can have a rejuvenating effect on elderly people’s brains, noted Scientific American.

Each of these findings is important on its own, but taken together, they may have interesting implications for pathologists who follow the research. And medical laboratory leaders may find opportunities in mass spectrometry in the near future, rather than decades from now.

Three Distinct Stages in Aging and Other Findings

The Stanford study found that aging appears to happen at three distinct points in a person’s life—around the ages 34, 60, and 78—rather than being a slow, steady process.

The researchers measured and compared levels of nearly 3,000 specific proteins in blood plasma taken from healthy people between the ages of 18 and 95 years. In the published study, the authors wrote, “This new approach to the study of aging led to the identification of unexpected signatures and pathways that might offer potential targets for age-related diseases.”

Along with the findings regarding the timeline for aging, the researchers found that about two-thirds of the proteins that change with age differ significantly between men and women. “This supports the idea that men and women age differently and highlights the need to include both sexes in clinical studies for a wide range of diseases,” noted a National Institutes of Health (NIH) report.

“We’ve known for a long time that measuring certain proteins in the blood can give you information about a person’s health status—lipoproteins for cardiovascular health, for example,” stated Wyss-Coray in the NIH report. “But it hasn’t been appreciated that so many different proteins’ levels—roughly a third of all the ones we looked at—change markedly with advancing age.”

Tony Wyss-Coray, PhD (above), Professor of Neurology and Neurological Sciences at Stanford University, was senior author of the proteomics study that analyzed blood plasma from 4,263 people between the ages 18-95. “Proteins are the workhorses of the body’s constituent cells, and when their relative levels undergo substantial changes, it means you’ve changed, too,” he said in a Stanford Medicine news article. “Looking at thousands of them in plasma gives you a snapshot of what’s going on throughout the body.” (Photo copyright: Stanford University.)

Differentiating Aging from Disease

Previous research studies also found it is indeed possible to measure a person’s age from his or her “proteomic signature.”

Toshiko Tanaka, PhD, Research Associate with the Longitudinal Study Section, Translational Gerontology Branch, National Institute of Aging (NIG), National Institute of Health (NIH), Baltimore, led a study into proteomics which concluded that more than 200 proteins are associated with age.

The researchers published their findings in Aging Cell, a peer-reviewed open-access journal of the Anatomical Society in the UK, titled, “Plasma Proteomic Signature of Age in Healthy Humans.” In it, the authors wrote, “Our results suggest that there are stereotypical biological changes that occur with aging that are reflected by circulating proteins.”

The fact that chronological age can be determined through a person’s proteomic signature suggests researchers could separate aging from various diseases. “Older age is the main risk factor for a myriad of chronic diseases, and it is invariably associated with progressive loss of function in multiple physiological systems,” wrote the researchers, adding, “A challenge in the field is the need to differentiate between aging and diseases.”

Can Proteins Cause Aging?

Additionally, the Stanford study found that changes in protein levels might not simply be a characteristic of aging, but may actually cause it, a Stanford Medicine news article notes.

“Changes in the levels of numerous proteins that migrate from the body’s tissues into circulating blood not only characterize, but quite possibly cause, the phenomenon of aging,” Wyss-Coray said.

Can Proteins Accurately Predict Age? Not Always

There were, however, some instances where the protein levels inaccurately predicted a person’s age. Some of the samples the Stanford researchers used were from the LonGenity research study conducted by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, which investigated “why some people enjoy extremely long life spans, with physical health and brain function far better than expected in the 9th and 10th decades of life,” the study’s website notes.

That study included a group of exceptionally long-lived Ashkenazi Jews, who have a “genetic proclivity toward exceptionally good health in what for most of us is advanced old age,” according to the Stanford Medicine news article.

“We had data on hand-grip strength and cognitive function for that group of people. Those with stronger hand grips and better measured cognition were estimated by our plasma-protein clock to be younger than they actually were,” said Wyss-Coray. So, physical condition is a factor in proteomics’ ability to accurately prediction age.

Although understanding the connections between protein in the blood, aging, and disease is in early stages, it is clear additional research is warranted. Not too long ago the idea of consumers having their DNA sequenced from a home kit for fun seemed like fantasy.

However, after multiple FDA approvals, and the success of companies like Ancestry, 23andMe, and the clinical laboratories that serve them, the possibility that proteomics might go the same route does not seem so far-fetched.

—Dava Stewart

Related Information:

Our Bodies Age in Three Distinct Shifts, According to More than 4,000 Blood Tests

Fountain of Youth? Young Blood Infusions ‘Rejuvenate’ Old Mice

Undulating Changes in Human Plasma Proteome Profiles Across the Lifespan

Blood Protein Signatures Change Across Lifespan

Plasma Proteomic Signature of Age in Healthy Humans

Stanford Scientists Reliably Predict People’s Age by Measuring Proteins in Blood

Advancements That Could Bring Proteomics and Mass Spectrometry to Clinical Laboratories

Might Proteomics Challenge the Cult of DNA-centricity? Some Clinical Laboratory Diagnostic Developers See Opportunity in Protein-Centered Diagnostics

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