The U.S. Census Bureau projects that by the year 2050, the number of people aged 65 and over will reach 83.7 million, almost double today’s number.
To help address that population boom and the public health and economic issues it produces, BMCC Professor and recent Presidential Scholar Jun Liang is researching molecular mechanisms that respond to stress and impact on aging—and thanks to a recent grant award of $150,000 from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), her research will be funded now through March 2017.
“There is a critical need to define the mechanisms that extend a person’s health span—the amount of time he or she is able to maintain good health,” says Liang, who is Principal Investigator on the grant.
“This is the first NIH grant BMCC has received as the lead institution for active scientific research. It is also the first time a major NIH research grant has been awarded to a community college as a leading institution, within CUNY and the U.S.”
Students glimpse their next step
Cathy Savage-Dunn, a biology professor at Queens College, CUNY, is the NIH grant’s co-investigator, and this summer, she will host Professor Liang’s students for a visit to the biology lab at Queen’s College.
“They’ll get to interact with undergraduate and graduate students engaged in research at a senior college, and get a first-hand view of the kind of scientific environment they could be entering as their next step,” says Liang.
The students’ foray into research, led by Professor Liang at BMCC, focuses on stress-responsive genes and how they signal cellular responses in a simple organism, C. elegans, a type of pond worm that has biological properties in common with humans: It possesses a digestive and nervous system, and it produces DNA—deoxyribonucleic acid; a molecule that encodes the genetic instructions that enable the function of all known organisms.
A thousand C. elegans pond worms can fit in a petri dish, and because of their three-day life cycle—in which they produce 350 offspring—they make excellent models for a genetic study.
‘An entry place to participate in real research’
“In addition to contributing to a nationwide knowledge base, the project will provide an entry place for BMCC students to participate in real research,” says Liang, who has mentored a number of students in the science lab since she joined BMCC in 2010.
The cellular response she is researching “plays an important role in muscle again and animal heat stress management,” she explains.
“Adapting to temperature change is a fundamental requirement for animal survival and development, as well as for cellular homeostasis, or the ability of cells to stay balanced and continue functioning in a normal way, as factors change around them."
In short, Liang’s project introduces stress triggers to worms that have different genetic backgrounds, to see how they respond to stress, and to measure how a particular set of genes affects the life span of an animal.
Her research also focuses on secreted growth factors that regulate cell arrest, proliferation, tumor genesis related to cancer and other functions.
“By understanding cellular stress response, it is possible to alter gene expression and control the gene’s important role in tumor progression and metastasis, as well as aging” she says.
“The extensions of this research can affect quality of life for many individuals, including those who are reaching the end of their longevity.”