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Jean Mariani, an “anti-age” researcher!

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Jean Mariani, an “anti-age” researcher!

Jean Mariani

Jean Mariani, professor at the UPMC, teaches neuroscience and the biology of ageing as well as practicing at the Charles Foix hospital (Public Assistance-Paris Hospitals, AP-HP). Since its establishment in 2001, he has run the Neurobiology of Adaptive Processes Laboratory (CNRS/UPMC) which conducts research concerning the nervous system’s late stages of development, its ageing and some of its neurodegenerative pathologies. It was with some pride that he presented the future Charles Foix Institute of Longevity, of which he is the scientific director, as its first stone was laid on February 17th. Interview…

Why is this institute being established? What can we expect from it? There are currently many doctors and researchers working on ageing, but in a fragmented and isolated manner. As a result we are making progress, but not fast enough considering the issues raised by the silent revolution of the increase in life expectancy. Only a pluridisciplinary approach, which takes into account the questions raised by longevity and ageing, can offer real progress. This means pooling skills, maintaining quality experimental and clinical research and implanting valorization structures on a common site. That is how the idea was born to create an ambitious institute in the heart of the Charles Foix University hospital, which has had a rich tradition of clinical research and geriatric care ever since its establishment. Furthermore, the regrouping of the Pitié Salpétrière and Charles Foix hospitals, now underway in line with AP-HP’s new strategic plan, promises a better organisation of geriatric research.

The increase in life expectancy is both a reality and a deepening concern. What is at stake in terms of research?

Cerebral ageing will be a primary line of research, as the deficiencies linked to the decline of these functions and to neurodegenerative illnesses cause a loss of autonomy, with all its consequences in terms of personal care. At the same time, we are working on what are called the longevity genes, the study of which is under-developed in France. The study of different model systems, simple ones like the drosophila or more developed like the mouse, has allowed us to bring to light the existence of genes which determine our way of ageing. Eventually, this fundamental research will allow us to better understand the aggravating factors in certain human illnesses linked to ageing. Another major issue in the research we have started concerns the development of gerontechnology. That is why we are working closely with the Institute of Intelligent and Robotic Systems (ISIR – UPMC/CNRS), which is perfecting care systems directly related to our endeavour of maintaining the autonomy of older subjects. For example, the ISIR is working on the design of intelligent apartments, of very sophisticated walkers and of software capable of detecting pain via the analysis of facial expressions of a patient who cannot talk.  Lastly, pharmacology will also be one of our lines of research to the extent that today, the vast majority of therapeutic trials are conducted on subjects aged under 50, and then administered on patients over 70… there is room for improvement.

Tell us about the infrastucture and the means that this leading-edge institute will have at its disposition…

From next year, the Research and Development Centre (CRD) will consist of a first building of 1800 m2 attributed to animal housing and experimental research. Relying on a single animal pool of 30 000 ageing rodents, it will be a resource centre offering services (animal housing, phenotyping) to our own researchers and to the entire community of Île de France. The CRD will also run a research project in the field of cerebral ageing. Research will be centred on the physiopathology of Alzheimer’s, in particular problems with spatial orientation, and on the repairing of an ageing brain by synapse reformation. Later, a second building will be renovated to accommodate a “translational” research centre; “translational” meaning it will offer patients some of the benefits of advances made in bioclinical and epidemiological experimental research, notably in the fields of neuroscience, cardiovascular disease, oncogeriatrics and gerontechnology. The CRD, expected to open in 2009, and the CRT (2012) will interact not only with each other, but with a biotechnology and gerontechnology business incubator very close to the hospital site. In total, we hope that this comprehensive project will help with the development of harmonious ageing; i.e. living long and aging well.

How many people will work at the Institute?

At the moment about twenty people from various different UPMC teams are directly implicated. The medium term goal is to get up to about a hundred people, from different backgrounds and dedicated to research. So we have made an international call for tender to attract foreign teams who will ensure the dynamism of our research and will bring new know-how. That is how an Australian team from the Pierre and Marie Curie International Chair has come to work with us. Their work on the reconstitution of synapses is absolutely fascinating.

The Brain and Marrow Institute (ICM) also studies Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. How will your respective research be articulated?
Obviously certain studies will overlap, but the difference lies in the nature of our institute, characterised by an interdisciplinary dimension including notions that go well beyond medicine. Our aim is to have a comprehensive and integrated vision of ageing and longevity, which also considers the economic and social consequences of the increase in life expectancy and of the vulnerability of aged persons; for example, in terms of maintaining autonomy and integration in the urban context.

Geriatrics is a medical specialisation which is particularly unloved by students. How can we answer the growing demand in human resources?

Currently, 30% of the AP-HP beds are assigned to geriatrics for less than a dozen medical professor-practitioners (Professeur des Universités-Praticien Hospitalier, PU-PH)! It is true that the pool of young geriatricians who are well-trained in research is more limited than in other disciplines, for various reasons including the clinical load, the recent character of the university discipline, etc. To alter this fact, we have to stimulate training for and by research of young geriatricians (UPMC has set up a Masters in the biology of ageing), and also attract organ specialists, fundamentalist biologists from different fields, the biology of development for example, who can bring new skills and approach ageing with complementary viewpoints. This emulation will give geriatrics and gerontology a new impulsion to take on the challenges and the major issues related to the ageing of the population.