February 3, 2023

By Ines Branco

AI and the science of aging with Nuritas Rob Radford

Last week on TechCentral our leading aging specialist, Robert Radford, spoke about our Nuritas AI and what it means to ‘grow old’.

Find the full transcript here:

Intro: They say you’re only as old as you feel, so how would you like to feel younger for longer? Robert Radford is a lead scientist at Nuritas and he’s had a chat with Nial Kitson during the week about how AI can identify peptides in everyday food, and how knowing that can help you live longer.

Niall: Rob, the trend that we see with scientists is very often a case of completing your academic training in Ireland before going on what you might call a version of rumspringa, even be it into industry or to travel abroad and then return either to academia or back to Ireland. Was that a part of your experience as well?

Rob: Yeah so, my own backround – I did my bachelors degree and my PhD here in Dublin at UCD, my original degree and my PhD were more focused on pharmacology and toxicology, so really far removed from the field of aging. Once I finished up my PhD I had my eye on looking abroad, like you said, it’s something that a lot of scientists do. I think initially in the past there was a strong case to be made for having been to America on your CV, that might be less so the case now, but it is still something that I wanted to do. I found a lab in San Diego California and the focus of the lab was really on the kind of hardcore nitty gritty molecular biology of aging, it was a completely new field to me, so it was a big jump. I had a chat with the professor around the lab and decided we’d give it a go so I moved over there and worked on the field of aging for a long time, so we covered a lot of topics and aspects of aging at the cellular level. I was over there for quite a long time, pushing 7 or 8 years and my wife, who is also a scientist, was over there with me and we had a little girl in San Diego and at that point we decided it’s time to move home so that was one of the big prompts to make the leap. In the meantime, I had been talking to Nora Khaldi, the founder of Nuritas, through email messages and had proposed a few ideas to work on. We decided to work on a grant together, which we did and luckily, we were rewarded, and that’s how me made the leap back to Ireland and I’ve been here since.

Niall: So, looking at your interest in aging, where did that come from? Was it just a desire to see a problem and come up with a solution or was it something that you had a long-standing interest in as a problem that maybe reversed or understood a bit better?
Rob: Some of my experience before moving to my post doc was based in experience working on cancer projects, I had some experience working on cardiovascular projects, and its funny, whenever you are doing the research in these projects the number one risk factor for all of these major diseases and ailments is age. The older you are the more at risk you are for pretty much every major ailment, so it’s the central target that can be tackled. It is a very appealing field to work in and we all have family and friends that are getting older as we speak and we have all seen the affects of aging, it would be nice to have a direct impact and help people live comfortably as they get older. That really is one of the reasons why I wanted to go into the field of aging because there is a very large aging population that’s getting larger, so there’s a lot of people who are going to need some sort of intervention in the coming years.

Niall: There’s also the social element of aging as well, there are people that discover that people are talking to them differently because they’re slightly older, even though they don’t necessarily feel as such, or maybe they just want to stay productive in the workforce for longer. Is that something that has informed your work as well?

Rob: It’s funny that you mention the social aspect of aging because it’s something I’ve been thinking about a little bit. You can clearly see now if I compare my parents to my grandparents beforehand, the way my parents behaved at 50 is vastly different to how my grandparents would have behaved at 50 or 60. I think people now have an idea that they most probably are going to live longer than their parents did, so people are more aware of the fact that they need to actively work at staying healthier for longer and I think we see that. There is a general trend towards trying to maintain your health as long as possible whereas if you look back 50 or 60 years ago, I don’t think that was a focus at all and I think it’s a good thing.

Niall: I think it’s certainly something that if you look at old movies and you see people that look much older and more mature, and you go back and check their date of birth you might find that they’re in their late 20’s or early 30’s. It’s a very interesting phenomenon just to see how people maybe aspired to a level of seniority that just isn’t seen as quite desirable today. In approaching the problem of aging then, how exactly does Nuritas do this?

Rob: This is one of the things that attracted me to come back to Ireland and to work with Nuritas. At Nuritas the approach is really interesting, we leverage AI to identify peptides within any protein source really but generally speaking we talk about plants. Were looking at peptide sequences found within plant protein that can elicit a certain biological function. When I talk about peptides, just in case people need a little bit of a refresher from their junior or leaving cert biology, I’m really talking about small chains of amino acids. Chains of amino acids make up proteins in our body and peptides are when we take a protein and break it up into smaller fragments, that’s a peptide. The way our bodies communicate with themselves and each other, all the cells in the body can speak multiple languages and one of the languages that the cells in the body speak is through peptides. Peptides can signal from one cell to another, cell A is telling cell B to do something, and it can use peptides to do that. By tapping into that resource and looking for peptides that actually have a biological function, we can activate the cellular responses and the molecular pathways in the cells to do a certain thing. That’s exactly what we’re trying to do at Nuritas, we’re trying to find peptides within plant sources that can elicit a biological function. We’re working in different fields here at Nuritas, we’re looking for peptides that do many different things.

Niall: Looking at the scale of peptides, I think one really interesting way that the company had put it at one stage is that if you look at an apple, they don’t see an apple but basically a data set. Is that very much how you see things?

Rob: If you go back to the idea of taking a protein, and you can look at taking an individual protein for example, and you can imagine the protein being made up of a string of amin acids. I think the best way to picture that in you mind is to picture a page in a book and all of the letters on that page, just smush them together with no spaces and if you think that each letter on that page then represents a single amino acid. Depending on how you look at that page or where you look at, you can string the letters together in different ways. You’re looking within that page to find multiple different messages or words that wouldn’t have existed before or until you looked at them in a particular light. That’s how we look at it because you have one protein there, one page is one protein, but an apple or a cell or whatever you are interested at looking at will have thousands of proteins so the potential for signalling molecules within any given source is, for example an apple, is absolutely huge.

Niall: Looking at what happens once a peptide has been identified that sort of triggers a response in the body or a command, what kind of products are we looking at that will be on the far end of you research?

Rob: We’re looking at quite a few different physiological endpoints here at Nuritas, we’re trying to treat different disease states. If I take two that are relatively well developed, one would be in the area of muscle health, we’ve identified a certain mixture of peptides that are capable of inducing muscle protein synthesis. If you think of the areas that that’s applicable in it’s a really broad scope, athletes are going to be interested in this kind of supplement to maintain muscle mass, to help with recovery – even if we bring it back to aging the scope there to bring it to an aging population is huge. Muscle loss is one of the biggest factors in the loss of quality of life in the elderly population so you can help maintain muscle mass in an elderly population, that’s a huge thing. To jump on the point of PeptiYouth, which is another one of the products we’re looking at, looking at aging an external way we can help improve the appearance of the skin and reduce some of the effects of time on the skin. It’s funny because I’ve worked in aging for quite a long time and if you talk to a scientist when you work in aging the first thing they jump to is cellular aging and senescence and that kind of thing, but if you talk to someone who is not a scientist about aging, the first thing they mention is “is it going to make me look younger?”. There’s definitely a different view on what aging is in term of the general population and the scientific population, those are two of the things that we are working on at Nuritas.

Niall: When you’re working on a product, we’re kind of aware of the great decline that starts from the age of 30 onwards, how do you convince people that the process of aging is not irreversible but certainly manageable in a very effective way?

Rob: That is one of the things that has really opened my eyes when I started working in the field. Generally, people think of aging as this inevitable thing that happens to all of us and that is understandable because for the majority of the time that humans have existed we are born. We’re young, we get older, we age and then we die. The thing is that the human body and all of our cells have an enormous capacity for repair and regeneration, and I think people are not aware of how much that can occur. If you think about it, the instructions to make everything that your cells need, is there in a 90year old as much as it is in a 5 year old, it’s just processes and systems in the cells that go awry as we get older that change how the cells manage their day to day business. I think if we figure out the mechanisms that cause those changes, then there is no reason why you can’t say that you can reverse or at least stop the effects of aging. Like I said, the mechanisms that govern how we repair and replace, they’re there, they are all coded into your DNA but for whatever reason as we get older they function less effectively. If we can work out how to change some of that we’re on to a winner.

Niall: One of the problems people have when they hear about ground-breaking research is the sense that it is going to be years before a breakthrough actually translates into a product. How long do you think we’re going to be waiting to see products like PeptiYouth becoming more widely available? Are we looking at 10 years down the line? Are we looking at something a little closer?

Rob: In terms of the Nuritas ingredients, we’re looking at something quite a bit closer. That’s another major benefit of the approach that we’re taking at Nuritas, the traditional pipeline to discover therapeutics can be quite long and very wasteful and inefficient. The AI system that we have developed here at Nuritas coupled with the screening mechanisms and methods we have in the lab, they really shorten that discovery pipeline down quite a bit so instead of taking 5 – 10 years to go from initial concept to the market, we’re looking at maybe 3 years. The idea there is that as we are doing that we are learning, the AI itself is also learning from things that do and don’t work so that the next round of predictions is better and that cuts down our time too. I really don’t think we’re talking about 10 years, especially not for our ingredients, we’re talking about a much shorter time.

Listen here

Source: TechCentral