NIH awards $2.4 million to UTSA researchers to study aging and health disparities – UTSA

November 15, 2022
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NOVEMBER 14, 2022 — A team of researchers led by faculty from the UTSA College of Liberal and Fine Arts has been selected to receive a five-year, $2.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to develop a new model that could be used to study biological aging. It is the largest grant COLFA researchers have ever received.
Fernando A. Campos, assistant professor in the UTSA Department of Anthropology, is leading the collaborative research project to understand why some individuals retain good health into old age while others experience declines in their health, physical function and wellbeing.
He and his colleagues believe the answer might lie with wild capuchin monkeys.
“It kind of remains a mystery as to why there’s so much variation in the progression of human aging,” Campos said. “We can gain a lot of insights to the aging processes by studying primates who share a lot of similarity with humans in terms of how their bodies work and things that influence their health such as social and physical environments.”
Campos and his team of researchers are monitoring several groups of capuchin monkeys in a study site called Santa Rosa within the Área de Conservación Guanacaste in Costa Rica.
Like humans, capuchins have complex social relationships, large brains and can live long lives: up to 30 years in the wild and up to 50 years in captivity. To find answers to his questions, Campos’ research will include a combination of field-based behavioral observation and laboratory analyses of noninvasive biological samples such as urine and feces. 
“If we can figure out the biological mechanism that causes those differences in aging to happen—the link between the adverse life experience and accelerated aging—that’s the sort of question I really want to provide an answer to,” Campos said. “I want to produce a better understanding of health disparities related to aging, and what kinds of interventions are possible to improve health.”
In phase one of the study, the researchers will identify and validate biomarkers of aging from non-invasive biological samples. In phase two, they will track those aging and health biomarkers by monitoring the capuchins long-term.
“Aging is something that everybody will have to face, if they’re lucky enough to survive to old age, and with it comes massive challenges for human societies and economies around the world,” Campos said. “My research is motivated by the desire to improve the health and wellbeing of older people and this grant will help us keep the project going years into the future.” 
Joining Campos are Eva Wikberg, an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology, and Yeonjoo Park, an assistant professor in the UTSA Department of Management Science and Statistics. Wikberg is identifying the genetic relationships within the group of capuchin monkeys, and Park is assisting with statistical analysis and research design.
Multidisciplinary researchers from the University of Calgary, Tulane University, New York University, University of Montreal and the University of California Santa Barbara are also members of the project team. 
Michelle Gaitan
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