Surfing at 85 – the genetics of healthy ageing and cancer

Centenary LogoWe’re living longer. That means that we’re all at greater risk of cancer and we’ll all suffer from bone loss. And for many of us, our final
years will be difficult.

Josef Penninger plans to change all that. His vision is of a future where we can safely surf and live active lives at 85 years of age without fear of fracture, cancer or any of the other scourges of ageing.

He’s director of Austria’s Institute of Molecular Biotechnology, and is in Australia as a guest of the Centenary Institute in Sydney to share his vision for a healthy old age, and discuss the research that’s getting us there.

More than a decade ago Professor Penninger proved that a protein called RANKL is the master regulator of bone loss. That work led to a new drug now used for treating osteoporosis and skeletal related events associated with cancer.

He then showed that the same protein is involved in sex hormone driven lactation in pregnancy.

He later showed that RANKL is a key driver of breast cancer initiation in response to sex hormones, thus providing a molecular connection between hormone replacement therapies, the Pill, and breast cancer.

Josef Penninger in Manly

Josef Penninger in Manly

In his latest work he’s identified a molecular brake that can turn on so called natural killer cells, a component of the immune system.
“Our immune systems are built to see and respond to danger,” he says.

“Inflammation is a key response. But as we get older the immune system’s own inflammatory response starts to cause problems. At the same time the immune system struggles to recognise cancer and respond.”

Last month, he and his colleagues reported in Nature that a molecule called Cbl-b stops natural killer cells from recognising and killing cancer cells. By turning that molecule off, his laboratory showed that the killer cells could get on with their job and markedly reduce the spread or metastasis of cancer cells.

All of this work is in mice, but bodes well for a new generation of drugs to help our immune systems better cope with the challenges of ageing, and for a future in which we age healthily then die without years of chronic disease.

Professor Penninger is participating in the Centenary Institute’s Future of Experimental Medicine conference at Manly today.

Tomorrow evening he will give the Tony Basten Oration at the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre. The Oration honours the founding director of the Centenary Institute.

Media contacts:

Toni Stevens
0401 763 130

Jill Atherton
0466 166 878

Background Information

Josef Penninger

Scientific Director, Institute of Molecular Biotechnology of the Austrian Academy of Sciences

Josef Penninger is the Founding Director of IMBA, a research initiative of the Austrian Academy of Sciences that promotes excellence in molecular biology and genetic research.

Penninger is one of the world’s leading mouse geneticists. In 2006, he received the Descartes Prize from the EU, and in 2007 the Ernst Jung Prize in Medicine and the Carus Medal for his work on finding genes that control life and disease.

He is also the youngest Member of the Academy of Sciences in Austria and holds professorships in Toronto, Vienna and Beijing.

Penninger has published more than 300 scientific articles; he was the first to identify the key function of a gene that controls bone loss in osteoporosis, arthritis, bone metastases, AIDS patients and in children with leukaemia and also found genes that regulate pain, heart disease, the circadian clock and, recently, lung failure involved in bird flu and bioterrorism.

He has a degree in Medicine, studied Art History and worked for many years in Toronto.

About the Future of Experimental Medicine Conference

The Future of Experimental Medicine Conference will be a biennial conference and has been created by the Centenary Institute to build understanding of the impact that researchers and clinicians can have when they work closely together – which is the Centenary model.

The theme of this year’s inaugural Future of Experimental Medicine Conference is Inflammation in Disease and Ageing. We’re only just starting to understand the roles of metabolism, inflammation and ageing in disease and this is a key research direction for Centenary.

The conference will examine frontiers of current basic research and clinical applications, covering topics including immunology, cell migration and signalling, autoimmune diseases, cancer, cardiovascular diseases, allergies and skin diseases. The inaugural conference is supported by:

The Charles Perkins Centre (The University of Sydney), The Ian Potter Foundation, EMBO, AbbVie, Janssen-Cilag, Sydney Medical School, LaVision BioTec, Leica Microsystems, CSL Limited, Business Events NSW, and the NSW Government’s Office for Health and Medical Research.

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About the Centenary Institute

The Centenary Institute is an independent leader in medical research seeking improved treatments and cures for cancer, cardiovascular and infectious diseases.

We are working to discover new prevention, early diagnosis and treatment options to enable each generation to live longer, healthier lives than the one before.

Centenary’s affiliation with the RPA Hospital and the University of Sydney means that our discoveries can be quickly applied to the fight against disease in the clinic.

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