By: Stephanie Miceli
This article is one in a series of profiles on the 2020 winners of the National Academy of Medicine’s Healthy Longevity Catalyst Awards — part of the Healthy Longevity Global Competition, a multiyear, multimillion-dollar international competition seeking breakthrough innovations to improve physical, mental, and social well-being for people as they age. Read more about the award and the winners’ research and ideas for promoting healthy aging.
There are the telltale signs of aging — a few more wrinkles, graying hair, and changes in posture. Other changes are less obvious. Aging-related changes also occur within the gut microbiome — a collection of bacteria, viruses, and fungi that live in your digestive tract.
Aging is associated with a chronic, low-grade inflammation known as “inflammaging,” contributing to the progression of many age-related disorders.
Is inflammation the cause of aging or is it just associated with aging? It could be either.
“Is inflammation the cause of aging or is it just associated with aging? It could be either. The role of a specific enzyme in the gut — intestinal alkaline phosphatase, or IAP — remains intriguing,” says Vidisha Mohad, who was named one of the winners of the National Academy of Medicine’s Healthy Longevity Catalyst Awards for her research on aging-related changes in gut barrier function. “A reasonable hypothesis would be if we stopped the inflammation, then we could slow down the aging process. But it’s unclear where inflammation originates.”
Some inflammation originates in the gut and travels to other organs. As we get older, the intestinal barrier weakens, causing increased gut permeability that makes us more vulnerable to gastrointestinal diseases and chronic inflammation. Studies suggest that age-related “imbalance” of gut bacteria may affect the intestine’s barrier function, but proving a causal relationship with systemic inflammation has been challenging.
Mohad’s mentor, Richard Hodin, chief of endocrine surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), has spent many years studying the role of IAP in preventing intestinal permeability and gut-derived systemic inflammation. Supported by the Healthy Longevity Catalyst Award, Mohad aims to fully elucidate IAP’s role in maintaining a healthy gut microbiome, using intestine-on-a-chip technology.
Now a postdoctoral fellow at the department of surgery at MGH, Mohad has been captivated by novel organ-on-chip technology since her Ph.D. years. Unlike conventional in vitro models, the organ-on-chip technology can better model cell interactions in health and disease. She will leverage the intestine-on-a-chip technology to closely mimic the aging gut microenvironment and test applications of IAP for treating gastrointestinal diseases, while controlling for chronic inflammation and its beneficial impact on aging. Eventually, her goal is to take human samples and see how IAP regulation can be designed to treat inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis. Future studies could also investigate the role of IAP in diseases such as diabetes and obesity.Vidisha Mohad
We may not be able to stop aging, but we can hopefully slow down the aging process and improve quality of life.
“We want this to be clinically translational,” says Mohad. “We may not be able to stop aging, but we can hopefully slow down the aging process and improve quality of life. Improving patient’s quality of life is our central goal, and I feel confident that IAP treatment will allow us to accomplish our objective.”
Mohad also stresses that science doesn’t happen in silos. Her cross-functional research team includes fellow surgeons as well as engineers and microbiologists. Growing up in a rural village in India, she couldn’t have imagined being in the scientific ecosystem of Boston and collaborating with leading experts in the field, she says.
As the first member of her family to graduate from college, this award has special significance for her. “I didn’t have the mentorship in India that I have today,” says Mohad. In her spare time, she mentors girls and young women in India who are exploring STEM careers. Often, gender stereotypes, gender roles, and lack of role models continue to divert women’s career choices away from science, and she’s determined to change that.
Being an immigrant — and being a woman — getting this award reminds me that you shouldn’t underestimate yourself and that anything is possible.
“Being an immigrant — and being a woman — getting this award reminds me that you shouldn’t underestimate yourself and that anything is possible,” she says, adding, “If you surround yourself with intellectually curious people, find good mentors, and work hard, you can make meaningful science happen.”