When Irina Conboy was about 5 years old, something began troubling her. “My grandmother was getting older, and I became very sad,” she says. “I wanted to figure out how that happened.”
Now a research scientist, she partners with her husband, Michael Conboy, Ph.D., to understand the root causes of aging—and potentially help reverse the aging process.
“Young people can go to the gym and the pain leaves in a couple of days, and then they have stronger muscles,” Conboy says. “But when you are older, you have less and less capacity and ability. Eventually that can lead to loss of independence, cognitive decline, muscle wasting, and frailty. So our work is focused on trying to understand what the main reason is for that.”
As graduate students at Stanford, Irina and Michael would discuss the mysteries of aging. After completing their graduate studies, Irina began working with a research team at Stanford University School of Medicine in hopes of answering the questions that plagued her as a child, and Michael soon joined her.
The duo—now at UC Berkeley in the department of bioengineering—believe there may be ways to turn back the clock. One area of interest is stem-cell therapy. Stem cells, which are found in every type of body tissue—muscle, bone, brain, heart—are self-renewing and don’t appear to age as poorly as the rest of the body. “What we show is that very rapidly—in a week or a couple of weeks—newly formed tissue in a very old animal, like a mouse, could be made very, very young by the activity of those tissue stem cells,” Irina says.
The hope is that this knowledge might lead to therapies that could boost the regenerative capacity of a person’s own stem cells. “What we predict is that even if somebody is 75 or 80 [years old], if you activate their stem cells—wake them up—they’ll start regenerating and repairing old tissues, gradually making such a person younger,” Irina says.
Since most body tissues are fed by blood, the duo has long been interested in blood’s role in aging. “There’s definitely something in the blood that, when you’re old, is keeping you down,” Michael says. “It’s not letting the cells in the tissue in your body perform healthfully like they did when they were young. But if you replace the old plasma—the liquid part of the blood—with something that’s been purified and cleaned, it perks up the whole system.”
Michael likens the process to changing the oil in your car. “You can throw out the garbage that’s in the dirty oil and replace it with nice, clean oil, and then the engine runs better,” he says.
By filtering harmful factors from their blood, perhaps people who are on the brink of developing age-related diseases—such as inflammatory or fibrotic disorders or even Alzheimer’s disease—could be brought back from the brink.
As the science progresses, Irina believes that tomorrow’s 90-somethings may seem much more like today’s 40-somethings. That could translate to longer, healthier retirements or perhaps additional contributions to society. As Irina says, “Some [people] are wonderful artists or writers or scientists, and they can continue rather than retiring or dying.”