UConn researcher’s focus: Could stem cells slow the aging process?

Morgan Carlson’s earliest memory is the day he found out that his mother and father would someday die.

“I broke down and began screaming and yelling when I realized my parents were going to die and that I, too, was going to die,” he said.

He has always been troubled about the idea of the body slowly aging and falling apart as it lurches closer to death.

“I always had this angst about the universe. How is it that I was put here to be basically destroyed over time?” he said.

This fear and fascination took him down a long path that included frozen frogs that sprang back to life, periodic fasting and a stint in California before he began to research how to prolong and improve the aging process.

And that brings us to his most recent endeavor. Carlson, 36, an assistant professor of genetics and developmental biology at the UConn Health Center, is one of 18 researchers who was recently awarded part of $9.8 million in state money for stem cell research. He will use his grant to continue to look into the amazing effect embryonic stem cells have on helping injured muscles repair themselves.

Carlson had hypothesized that injecting an embryonic stem cell into the injured muscle would regenerate the muscle cells. But he found, instead, that the embryonic cell died off. and that the dying stem cell had an extraordinary effect on the old muscle stem cells.

“Something they secreted had a pro-regenerative effect on the old muscle that was really impressive. The muscle looked even better than young muscle. I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said.

The secretion enhanced the muscle’s ability to activate cells, form new muscle fibers and improve muscle regenerative responses, he said.

He is trying to determine how the embryonic stem cells are reprogramming the older cells to make them more youthful. If he can figure out and isolate the molecules behind the anti-aging process the hope is that eventually researchers could harvest them, grow them in bulk and develop therapeutic cocktails to administer to the muscle, and possibly, eventually, other organs.

Carlson hopes his research at the UConn Health Center’s Center on Aging could eventually lead to postponing diseases that often catch up to people when they are older, such as stroke, heart disease and diabetes. His research could perhaps give them another five years.

“We’re not talking about immortality,” he said. “We’re talking about slowing down the aging process.”

George Kuchel, a geriatrician and chairman of UConn’s Center on Aging, recruited Carlson because of his pioneering work into how aging affects the ability of muscle cells to repair themselves. Research on muscle tissue is particularly important for the elderly because healthy muscles improve mobility and help prevent a fall, which is critical to remaining independent.

While many think of stem cells as helping younger people fight disease, the majority of patients who will benefit most from stem cell interventions are older people who suffer from everything from osteoarthritis to heart disease to Alzheimer’s disease, Kuchel said.

Carlson’s work is especially exciting because it could also lead to the discovery of molecules scientists have not even dreamed about yet, Kuchel said.

Carlson, who is married and has a 7-month-old daughter, grew up in Woonsocket, R.I., and moved to Simsbury during his high school years. His passion for science took off when he was an undergraduate at Elon University in North Carolina.

He remembers a professor showing the class a video about a freeze-tolerant wood frog found in Canada and parts of the United States. He was fascinated by the idea that the frog actually freezes into a solid block of ice and goes into a state of suspended animation during the winter.

“From that, I thought, ‘Are these frogs actually living longer because they are spending time in winter in a frozen stage?’ ” he said.

As an undergrad, he conducted his own experiment measuring the metabolism and brain waves of these wood frogs compared with other frogs.

Carlson moved out to California and earned a Ph.D. in bioengineering at the University of California at Berkeley and did postdoctoral work in California. But he realized he missed biology and was still haunted by aging.

He remembers waking up one day when he was about 28 and looking in the mirror.

“I realized my face was not the same as it was the day before. Something about it looked slightly older,” he said.

That moment solidified his resolve to go into the field of aging.

He returned to the Northeast after his father became ill. Carlson has been at the Center on Aging at the UConn Health Center for about a year.

Carlson also indulges in his own personal anti-aging regimens by doing intermittent fasting and rigorous exercise. During his “fasts” he eats a very light diet of healthful foods such as almonds, broccoli tops, dark chocolate and water. The idea is that his cells burn off the extra fat in them and clean themselves out. He follows this with vigorous exercise and a super nutritious meal.

“I want to encourage healthy cell turnover,” he said.

He still has angst about aging but is comforted by the fact that his research might improve the aging process.

“As long as I’m here I’m going do science and devote myself to aging and do something.”