2020-2021 Fesler-Lampert Chair in Aging Studies: Christina Camell, PhD
I am an Assistant Professor within the Institute on the Biology of Aging (IBAM) and Metabolism and Biochemistry, Molecular Biology and Biophysics at the University of Minnesota. I received my PhD in Immunology from Baylor College of Medicine in 2013. My research investigated inflammation and immune cell function during chronic diseases, like obesity. I performed my postdoctoral training in the lab of Dr. Vishwa Deep Dixit at Yale School of Medicine. I have received funding at the private and federal level, including a career development award from the National Institute on Aging.
My postdoctoral research built upon my interest in immune-metabolic interaction by investigating mechanisms driving NLRP3 inflammasome activation during chronic disease and aging. Recent studies demonstrated that the NLRP3 inflammasome is among the major regulators of age-related inflammation and metabolic disturbance. I have further defined NLRP3 inflammasome activation as a critical regulator of age-related impaired lipolysis. My work uses multiple techniques, including flow cytometry, whole-mount confocal microscopy, whole-genome transcriptomic, and pharmacological and genetic manipulations in vitro and in vivo to describe the role of immune cell subsets which become inflamed with aging. These findings identified new mechanisms of inflammation during aging (inflammaging) and set a foundation for my research into the role of immune cells during chronic and infectious diseases in aged individuals.
What led you to apply to the Fesler-Lampert Chair?
I developed a project investigating how aging increase vulnerability to chronic infections, in collaboration with Drs. Sara Hamilton-Hart (Center for Immunology) and Paul Robbins (IBAM). We performed pilot experiments to gather data to describe our mouse model of infection, of which, one virus was a mouse coronavirus. Our initial data was extremely surprising and showed the old mice had increased inflammation, elevated senescence and succumbed to the infection. We also used a drug that depletes senescence, and extends lifespan in aged, uninfected mice, to ask whether the infection-related mortality could be reduced by the senolytic drug. To our amazement, mortality was reduced by the senolytic drug.
With the initiation of COVID-19 and the rise of SARs-CoV2 infections, I realized that our project could directly impact current holes in our knowledge regarding why the elderly have elevated mortality and morbidity to COVID-19. There is also potential to guide clinical trials that may improve survival in elderly COVID-19-positive patients
This project complements previous research that I have performed, but it is also a shift from that research, in that it focuses on the aged immune response during infection. The Fesler-Lampert Chair will allow me to make that change and pursue these interesting and highly relevant findings.
What are some of the projects you plan to work on while F-L Chair? What do you hope to achieve?
I will extend my research into the aged immune cell and senescent cell responses to mouse coronavirus. The first part of the project will identify when and how senolytic therapy reduces mortality in the aged mice. This will allow me to describe the immune cells and senescent cells that drive inflammation and mortality or that permit clearance of the virus and generation of protective antibodies.
The second part of the project will analyze the specific immune cells that the senolytic drug is acting on. Is there a direct role of the senolytic drug on immune cells or is it on the tissue-specific cells that are infected?
Altogether, this project will permit me to address how senolytic drug reduces mortality and whether there are changes to the current treatment protocol that can be enhanced to further reduced mortality and improve immune responses of aged individuals.
What are some of your professional and academic goals after the Chair ends?
The projects that will be completed during the Fesler-Lampert Chair will generate data for manuscripts and future grant applications. My goals are to apply for multiple grants including a R01 from the National Institute on Aging and grants from private funding mechanisms.
On a professional level, and as a member of IBAM, I hope to work with the Center for Healthy Aging and other aging science investigators, to bring more awareness and collaboration in aging research at UMN. Nationally, the aging field is growing exponentially, which provides multiple opportunities for outreach and growth.
There are serious deficits in our knowledge about how the aged immune responds to infections that this project will begin to address. I hope to be able to extend this body of research to fill in these gaps. As there is a possibility of a therapeutic treatment for elderly individuals, it is also critical to understand the details of how the senolytic drug works and any possible side effects that may occur. Overall, this award is an initial step into my career as an aging scientist at IBAM and UMN.