Dr. Holly Brown-Borg, a researcher with the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences, received a bit of unexpected good news this year that will only help her in a quest for answers to questions on aging.
Brown-Borg, associate professor of pharmacology, physiology and therapeutics, was the recipient of an unprecedented and unsolicited award from the Glenn Foundation, based in California.
“From heaven,” Brown-Borg said, describing her reaction to the award. “It’s pretty exciting because I didn’t have to write anything to get this, so obviously there is someone out there watching our work.”
The $60,000 award, although not a huge amount by some standards, will fund the salary of Brown-Borg’s trusty lab technician, Sharlene Rakoczy, for the next 18 months. That gives Brown-Borg welcome peace of mind.
“I don’t sleep at night sometimes,” Brown-Borg said. “She has a family to support, too. Sharlene has been with me for 10 years. She is the ‘queen’ of my lab and I would die without her.”
The unsolicited award is believed to be the first such gift that the UND medical school has ever received, according to Corey Graves, the school’s grants and contracts officer. Usually, support for research is attracted through grant proposals prepared and submitted by faculty members and sent to federal agencies, associations or foundations.
“That’s the normal way to get money; that’s the hard way to get money,” Brown-Borg said.
Over the summer, Brown-Borg spoke to Mark Collins, president of the Glenn Foundation, about why she was chosen for the award. He said that a small group of advisers chose Brown-Borg’s lab and a select group of other small labs because of the unique research they are doing.
Brown-Borg’s lab first made waves in the aging research community in 1996, a year after her arrival at UND, when it published a paper in Nature about Ames dwarf mice living longer than normal mice.
The research focuses on identifying mechanisms of stress resistance associated with health and longevity, using one of only six Ames dwarf mice colonies in the United States. Brown-Borg compares stress factors caused by metabolic oxidation in the dwarf mice compared to those in normal mice.
“We have been able to show that the animals that live longer are the ones that are able to better handle oxidative stress,” she said. “The Ames dwarf mice make fewer free oxygen radicals so their tissues have less damage, and less damage over time equals longer life.”
Brown-Borg explains that dwarf mice are growth hormone and thyroid hormone deficient. They appear “infantile,” exhibiting youthful traits for longer periods compared to normal mice because of a lack of those hormones.
Holly Brown-Borg (right) and her laboratory technician, Sharlene Rakoczy, have worked together on research projects for a decade. The laboratory made headlines among researchers studying the aging process with publication of findings about longer lifespans for Ames dwarf mice.
“They live 50 to 70 percent longer,” Brown-Borg said. “A normal mouse lives about 24 months, but the dwarf mice live 36 to 44 months, so it’s like a person living to be 150 years old.”
But don’t think that Brown-Borg is necessarily pushing for people to live to be a century and a half. Growth hormone in humans naturally begins to taper off about age 30, which is a good thing because it’s cancer forming. The problem, however, is that some athletes are using growth hormones as replacement for steroids, as it’s harder to detect, it builds muscle and it decreases abdominal mass.
Some physicians also are singing the praises of growth hormone use by the elderly as a way to build muscle mass. But Brown-Borg says it’s only an aesthetic fix; there is no evidence that it actually adds strength.
“You do more damage with growth hormone than without it,” she said. “It sounds like a fountain-of-youth type drug, but it causes arthritis, so it’s not the miracle that people should be looking for.”
Brown-Borg advocates a more healthful approach to aging, one that involves a healthy diet, exercise and living life in moderation.
“If we want to live to 100, we don’t want to spend the last 20 years in a nursing home. But if we can live to be 100 and spend 98 of those years active — that’s huge,” Brown-Borg said. “We’re hoping to increase ‘healthspan,’ not so much lifespan.”