For the first 10 years of its existence, investigators at the Claude D. Pepper Older Americans Independence Center at UTMB focused on muscle aging and sarcopenia, which is muscle loss that occurs in older adults. It turned out to be farsighted, giving the center a head start on one of the next big things in medical science, translational research.

Photo by Jennifer Reynolds, Galveston County Daily News
Photo by Jennifer Reynolds, Galveston County Daily News
Photo by Jennifer Reynolds, Galveston County Daily News

Initially, Pepper Center investigators came from diverse backgrounds as they studied muscle aging, said Dr. Elena Volpi, the new principal investigator and director of UTMB’s Pepper Center.

“Focusing on a narrow topic allowed very successful investigators in their respective fields – such as professors John Papaconstantinou in the basic sciences, Blake Rasmussen in metabolism, Kenneth Ottenbacher and Elizabeth Protas in rehabilitation, Melinda Sheffield-Moore and Dr. Randall Urban in endocrinology, Dr. James Goodwin and professor Glenn Ostir in epidemiology and outcomes – to learn each others’ language and work together. This is what translational research is supposed to do. We started doing it before it was called translational research.”

The goal of translational research is to take what scientists have learned and apply it to help patients. The National Institutes of Health declared its importance in 2006 when it created its Clinical and Translational Science Award program. The Pepper Center played an important role when UTMB received its CTSA award in 2009.

Only center in the Southwest

Founded in 2000, UTMB’s Pepper Center is one of 12 in the country and the only one in the Southwest. Funding comes in five-year cycles and the UTMB center recently learned that the National Institute on Aging extended its grant into 2015. The $5.8 million award is essential to maintain a research infrastructure for training of young investigators in aging research and to support externally funded projects on muscle aging and rehabilitation. Those projects bring more than $20 million to UTMB, mainly from the NIH. The center’s 37 investigators have generated more than 300 scientific papers since its inception.

One of the major goals for Volpi and her colleagues is developing interventions to reduce loss of muscle and function that occurs in older adults. More than 750 volunteers from Galveston and the nearby mainland have already participated in Pepper Center research, most involving muscle studies. Promising treatments focus on nutrition, testosterone and exercise.

“You give nutritional supplementation made of amino acids (the building blocks of protein) to healthy older adults and their muscle-creating synthesis and growth increases for a few hours in a measurable way,” Volpi said. “Or you have someone exercise and you can see their muscles accumulate protein over a short time frame.”

During the next five years, the center will pay particular attention to expanding research that focuses on improving muscle function in older persons when they become ill and are hospitalized, even briefly.

“Acute illnesses can be seen as ‘hits’ from which some people may never fully recover,” she said.

Set up for large studies

 UTMB’s Acute Care for Elderly Unit opened in 2000 to expedite the recovery of older adults following acute medical illness or surgery. Now, it’s also the home of a growing number of clinical studies by Pepper Center investigators that aim to improve seniors’ odds of a full and speedy recovery from bouts of illness.

“We are set up right now to launch really large studies in hospitalized older patients,” Volpi said.

Volpi succeeds Dr. James Goodwin, director of the Sealy Center on Aging. Goodwin competed successfully to bring the center to UTMB and mentored Volpi to refocus her career on aging. Later, as the theme of the Pepper Center shifted towards her main area of expertise, they planned her succession to the helm of the Pepper Center. Before coming to UTMB, she focused on endocrinology, metabolism and diabetes research, the areas of her post-graduate medical training.

“My ‘initiation’ to aging research was entirely random,” she said. She came to UTMB in 1996 to study muscle protein metabolism in healthy humans and had planned to stay only one year as a post-doctoral fellow. Not long after arriving in Galveston, however, she learned that Goodwin was looking for a clinical researcher to begin muscle studies in older people.

Hooked on volunteers

“The idea was intriguing, because upon looking at the literature I found out that very little was known about the mechanisms of muscle loss and muscle metabolism in healthy seniors,” she said. “Within a few weeks, I was hooked and decided that I wanted to continue my research career on aging.”

What “hooked” her were the research subjects. “They volunteer because they are truly interested in advancing our scientific knowledge,” she said. “Senior volunteers love to share their life experience with the research team while participating in our daylong studies, which makes it very enriching for all of us.”

Pepper Center volunteers are as enthusiastic about the studies as the researchers are. Claire Rhoades, a volunteer from Dickinson, first participated last September and has since enlisted two of her friends. “I probably talked five into it but only two passed the physical,” said Rhoades.

The healthy volunteers undergo several screenings, beginning with a phone interview that involves a description of the study and a short battery of questions about their health and medical history, according to Jennifer Timmerman, clinical research coordinator with the Pepper Center. Those who qualify are invited to UTMB for medical screening.

While research participants are reimbursed for their time and travel, there’s another, more personal benefit.

“Volunteers are provided with copies of all their screening lab data and find it beneficial to share with their personal health care providers,” said Sue Minello, a nurse practitioner with the Pepper Center. “They love to learn more about their physical fitness and health.”

With more than 70 million aging baby boomers, keeping them independent and out of long-term care facilities will not only benefit the individuals and their families, but the nation as a whole.

Despite claims that humans can achieve a lifespan of 120 years, which Volpi supports, “our general goal is not to be anti-aging, because aging happens. Even newborns age,” she said. “The problem is how to age gracefully in a way that you can function well and do what you like until you reach the last day. That’s the purpose of our research here.”