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Cancer, Aging, and Immunity

Matthew Youngman, Ph.D., is a CRI-funded postdoctoral fellow who is studying the effects of aging on the immune system. Working in the laboratory of Dennis Kim, M.D., Ph.D., in the department of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, MA, Youngman seeks to understand the genetic basis of the effect of aging on a highly conserved immune signaling pathway found in humans and Caenorhabditis elegans, a tiny roundworm the size of a comma and that has a lifespan of roughly three weeks.

"Since we want to study something that is at the end of life," Youngman say, "it was important to be in a system that has a pretty short lifespan. We can look at a very, very old worm when it’s only twelve or fifteen days old."  Youngman has focused his research on two proteins called PMK-1 and DAF-16/FOXO and their role in protecting the worm against infection throughout different stages of its life. These proteins act as switches that turn on or off processes that lead to production of other proteins that fight infection.

According to Youngman, his research has important implications for understanding the effects of aging on the human immune system. "DAF-16/FOXO has a counterpart in humans that turns out to be a tumor suppressor." His research could lead to new understanding of how the protein’s human counterpart protects people from cancer or, later in life, fails to protect against cancer.