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UR Researchers Part of Effort to Create Atlas of Cells to Study Age-Related Diseases

University of Rochester scientists are part of a consortium of institutions recently awarded $31 million to build a molecular atlas of human senescent cells.  These cells, which are not very well understood, are believed to contribute to a number of age-related diseases, including chronic lung disease, cardiovascular disease, dementia, and cancer. 

Most cells throughout the body have the capacity to divide, multiply, and replace old cells.  However, in response to certain stresses, some cells lose the ability to proliferate. These cells, called senescent cells, accumulate as we age and are believed to contribute to diseases later in life.

The University of Rochester arm of the study will be led by Irfan Rahman, Ph.D., (principal investigator) with the Department of Environmental Medicine, Gloria Pryhuber, M.D., with the Department of Pediatrics, Vera Gorbunova, Ph.D., with the UR Department of Biology and co-director of the Rochester Aging Research Center, and Dongmei Li, Ph.D., with the Department of Public Health Sciences and the Clinical and Translational Science Institute.

The project is part of a larger initiative called the Cellular Senescence Network (SenNet) program established by the National Institutes of Health to build a cellular atlas to understand how and why senescent cells develop and to set the course for new therapies for age-related diseases.  Rochester is part of the TriState SenNet Tissue Mapping Center, which is led by the University of Pittsburgh and also includes The Ohio State University and Carnegie Mellon University.

The TriState SenNet Tissue Mapping Center will contribute to this effort by studying senescence in heart and lung cells. The researchers will collect and map gene expression and protein composition, as well as metabolites in senescent cells from human tissue slices and in lab-grown mini organs, or organoids. They’ll compare different types of senescent cells from across the lifespan to characterize biomarkers that can identify why and by what mechanism cells become senescent.  This information could point to new therapies called senolytics that seek and destroy senescent cells involved in age-related diseases.

The maps of senescent heart and lung cells will ultimately be combined with maps from different organs created by other teams in the SenNet consortium, ultimately creating a global atlas of cellular senescence spanning many tissues of the human body.  This open-source repository will enable research to explore the data and make new discoveries about senescent cells and how they contribute to human health and diseases.