UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Muscle loss due to aging, cancer and other chronic diseases can significantly affect people’s health and well-being, but there are currently no effective treatments to prevent or reverse muscle atrophy.
In a new research project, Penn State researchers will investigate potential ways to stimulate the muscle to make more ribosomes — particles in the cell that make proteins that then build muscle. While previous work has found that falling numbers of ribosomes contribute to muscle loss, there is currently no way to reverse or slow that process.
“Muscle loss is part of the aging process,” said Gustavo Nader, associate professor of kinesiology and physiology and principal investigator of the study. “As we age, our muscles lose the ability to make proteins. This problem is exacerbated when people get sick, which reduces quality of life and increases mortality. Preventing muscle loss is an unmet clinical need, and the implications of our research are broad and relevant for aging, orthopedics, oncology and regenerative medicine.”
A $2 million grant from the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), National Institutes of Health will help fund the study. Nader said he hopes the results could be used to create new treatments to stimulate muscle building.
“In order to grow, muscles need to make new ribosomes, and when this process is disrupted, muscles atrophy,” Nader said. “Our goal is to advance the field by defining novel transcriptional and epigenetic mechanisms controlling ribosome production in skeletal muscle.”
Once the team finds ways to prevent muscles from wasting, Nader continued, it potentially will help people to stay healthy and maintain an active lifestyle, which is important for the aging population and those suffering from chronic diseases. While muscle wasting can affect people with several different chronic conditions, or be a natural result of aging, the researchers said it can pose particular risk to people living with cancer. Previous work has found that severe muscle wasting occurs in about 80% of people with cancer and is responsible for about 30% of cancer deaths.
One of Nader’s most recent studies also found that not just cancer, but common cancer treatments can also contribute to muscle wasting. The findings indicated that chemotherapy interferes with the process that builds new ribosomes and further contributes to muscle loss.
The new, NIH-funded project will aim to find molecular targets that can then be used to stimulate the production of new ribosomes to promote muscle growth.
Specifically, the researchers will investigate a molecular switch that allows the muscle to make ribosomes without exercise or any drugs. Preliminary results showed that muscles can grow when this mechanism is activated, so the goal will be to find out other key players that can be the target of pharmacological therapies to prevent muscle wasting.
NIH grant AR078430 will support this research.